Once upon a time, before Guillermo del Toro was making giant robots fight aliens, he was making a lot of movies in Mexico and Spain that played off of the fears of the dark that live all around and inside us. Needless to say, there was a lot more emotional depth there, and it proved to be very useful when telling scary stories. So for our final entry into a month of international frights, we’ll be looking at good ole fashioned specter spectacular from a country facing the bloodiest war in its recent history.
Let’s take a look at the war-torn ghost story that is The Devil’s Backbone.
We begin during the Spanish Civil War, in which little orphan Carlos comes to an orphanage run by two old anti-fascists worried about what will happen when they are discovered by the opposing army. However, there’s more at stake than a war as Jacinto, the young groundskeeper who is also a huge and violent asshole who terrorizes everyone, is trying to find the secret stash of gold hidden in orphanage. Carlos finds that a ghost, Santi, is haunting the orphanage, warning that something terrible is about to happen and desiring to take revenge. As everything falls apart when Jacinto blows up half of the orphanage looking for the gold, Carlos learns the truth about the nature of memory and survival.
As one of del Toro’s early films, and one produced by Pedro Almodovar himself (one of Spain’s most renowned directors), you’d expect it to have all of the big mainstays that made del Toro famous: the creepy imagery, surrealist tendencies, ghosts and ghouls, and the evils of human nature. In reality, this film only showcases the last two, as it is not particularly beautiful or interesting in its choice of visuals. That’s not to say it’s poorly shot and directed, but it certainly lacks that same otherworldly quality we’ve come to know and love from him.
In terms of the acting, I have to say that the child actors in the movie are actually pretty good. It’s sort of hard to portray the horrors of war when your main subjects are all small kids who don’t understand what’s happening but this movie pulls it off. Each child has their own distinct style and personality, and still act like kids just trying to survive day to day rather than playing it too childish or too serious. Jacinto is pretty scary considering he’s just a guy with a lot of anger, and the orphanage’s two aging caretakers are excellent but ultimately their drama only furthers the plot in the symbolic sense rather than adding to the central story.
The story itself is not the most inspiring or whimsical, since the supernatural elements are downplayed a lot. The outbursts of Jacinto’s violence are terrifying but also needed a bit more fuel behind it for a rage that burns that brightly. There’s still del Toro’s love of symbolism, like the giant bomb that never exploded smack in the middle of the orphanage representing the constant threat of destruction or the futility of force. I honestly though it felt like the other dozen or so Spanish Civil War movies I have seen (you know, except with a ghost) and I can’t be sure if that’s good that he can fit into the genre or bad because it brings nothing new to the cinematic table. You also have to wonder how much Almodovar had to do with this tonal shift, though the less we know about that the better.
All in all, The Devil’s Backbone is a lovely prologue to what ends up being a fantastic career of a director keen on creating the strangely beautiful and the beautifully strange but it’s not what I would call a masterpiece or even emblematic of his work as a whole. It has its charms and it is certainly miles above other films of its category simply by not beating you over the head with an anti-war message.
– Good acting.
– Strong cinematography.
– Not unique from other films of its genre.
– Story is a bit bland and focuses too much on the adults.