27 May 2003 | underfire35
Better Than American Horror Films...
THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is a Spanish language supernatural thriller. It consists of a haunted school for orphaned boys. Now, in an American film that would be all you get, a ghost running around scaring the young inhabitants of the gloomy building. That's it, and it would not be scary at all. It is to the credit that the makers of THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE present the actual ghost as the least frightening aspect of the film; he becomes, in fact, the moral center of a deeply complex story.
In Spain, the year is 1939 and Franco's army is advancing towards the small village where the most notable landmark is an impotent bomb jutting out of the ground in the center of the town. A child, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), his father's life taken in the bloody civil war, finds refuge with the Leftist caretakers of the school. Not a good place to be around at that time. He finds himself under the wing of Prof. Casares (Fererico Luppi), a strange intellectual who fears the oncoming dirge of Franco's forces. There is also some intrigue involving the caretaker Jacinto (Edvardo Noriega) and the revolution's small supply of gold. Oh, right and there is a troubled spirit of one of the dead children creeping through the bowls of the school, uttering ominous warnings to young Carlos ("Many of you will die.")...
It is one of the strongest elements of THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE that it does not become distracted by the ghost story, I mean what is one ghost compared to the very real fears of war, death, greed, abandonment, political persecution, abuse at the hands of adults, lust, and acceptance. A spirit cannot hurt us, it does not exist on the same plain of the living. His life has ended and he can no longer be troubled by the reality the characters face. A bullet or explosion wil not penetrate his flesh, he no longer feels pain. The boys who survive him are those who have to struggle for their small place on this earth.
The film paints in detailed strokes and does not cut corners when it comes to the emotions involved in the plot. The characters are not pawns to be startled periodically by cats or loud noises, they just happen to occupy the same space with a sad and restless dead boy.
The director, Guillermo Del Toro (CRONOS, MIMIC, the better-than-the-original-but-that-ain't-saying-much BLADE 2), handles the material very well, never losing sight of the story he has set out to tell. The metaphors he uses (the bomb, the pool, the contents of the jars) are rich and creative. Del Toro, along with his crew and actors, create moments of intense fear and unsettling action; the musical score, by Javier Navarette, is particularly effective. The film is dark and gloomy (perhaps overly so at times), but never succumbs to the easy answers in the shadows. As for the American films it will be compared to: THE OTHERS-not scary, THE RING-not scary, DARKNESS FALLS-not scary...THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is scary, complex and ultimately memorable.