The Devil's Backbone
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE: CREEPINESS TO THE FULLEST
One thing about Guillermo Del Toro, he likes his movies set in war torn Spain. Just like his recent flick, Pan’s Labyrinth. And he also likes children overcoming evil adults. His 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone is set in an orphanage for boys whose parents are fighting in the war or just want to keep them safe. The boys get into mischief and tell stories about the possibly live bomb in the schoolyard. It sounds innocent enough. But when one of the boys encounters the ghost of a boy who used to live there, that innocence is taken away. Del Toro does creepiness like nobody else and will leave you with a feeling of uneasiness once he is done.
Carlos (Fernando Tielve) has been brought to a boy’s orphanage by Spanish rebels as his father has died (unbeknownst to him). He tries to adapt even while being bullied by the other boys. One night he encounters the ghost of a young boy who keeps predicting that many of them will die. Carlos tries to figure out who the boy is and why he keeps contacting him.
Guillermo likes the tale of the underdog. As an audience member I sympathized with Carlos when he is being teased and bullied by some of his classmates. He is alone and doesn’t know what he is doing in this place. He is trying to make sense of his new world. So when he encounters this ghost of a boy, he focuses his energy on him. This is a typical ghost story just set in a new place. But what saves it are the visuals. They are a character in itself. When Carlos first arrives, one of the boys he meets shows him a ball (fashioned from snot and mud). This shows the lack of resources and activities that these boys have available. When Carlos meets the ghost, the boy appears to be floating, has blood coming out of an open wound on his head, and his eyes are that of a skeleton. It gives you goose bumps just looking at him. When Carlos roams the school, shadows lurk in every corner. Your heart pounds as you watch Carlos run from the boy and hide in a closet until morning. Everything is black and gray with very little color. The movie takes on a sinister tone when the adult Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) is around. Jacinto grew up in the boarding school and is a Spanish rebel who has come to hide out. He has no regard for life and just wants to find the gold that Carmen (Marisa Paredes) the headmistress has stashed within the school (the gold is to help fund the movement). He is a great villain in the sense that he has no morals and no redeeming qualities. Noriega doesn’t ever give you a reason to connect with him. You want him to be hurt and want the boys to do it.
This story has been told before. The visuals do set it apart from your standard ghost tale. But you could see what was happening before it happened and you knew how it would end. More could have been done to set it apart from the standard.
The Devil’s Backbone is a chilling tale that deals with the loss of family, cruel kids, and even crueler adults, while trying to solve the mystery of a ghost that keeps contacting the living. It is sad, brutal, and unforgiving in terms of what happens during times of war. It will make the hair on your arms stand up and maybe make you want to sleep with the lights on.