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The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Sandlot of the Damned

Had Stephen King written The Devil’s Backbone, you’d have been able to guess its entire trajectory after one look at the DVD case and the words “ghost” and “orphanage” in the synopsis.  A mysterious zombie child would stalk the halls of the orphanage, terrorizing an evil headmistress and the sadistic flunkies she employs; there’d be a pack of bullies who harass the noble, innocent new kid; and a climactic battle where the evil zombie kid turns out to be a front for Satan himself, probably transforming into a giant spider or something.  In other words, The Devil’s Backbone has all the ingredients of the tired, creepy-kid horror movies we’ve had to endure in the last decade.

Fortunately, the movie was made in Spain, far outside the Hollywood studio system; meaning co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro had the freedom to put his amazing spin on a trite formula.  The Devil’s Backbone is a unique and absolutely perfect horror movie that leaves no single element un-twisted.  It also avoids the pitfalls of films that have so many “surprises” that, by the end, the double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses negate any attachment the audience may have had to the story early on.

Set during the Spanish Civil War, the story centers on young Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who is dropped off at an orphanage run by Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi).  Following his father’s death (of which he is unaware), Carlos’s tutor leaves him there as protection from the war raging outside the compound’s walls.  He immediately runs afoul of a pack of bullies led by Jaime (Inigo Garces).  Making matters worse is the menacing-looking apparition of a dead kid named Santi (Junio Valverde) who stalks the halls with glowing eyes set deep inside a perpetually gushing wounded head.

The secondary story involves a love square between impotent-but-loyal Dr. Casares, whose heart belongs to the widowed, one-legged Carmen; Carmen’s secret sexual encounters with handyman/grown-up-orphan Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega); and Jacinto’s strained relationship with girlfriend Conchita (Irene Visedo).  The only other plot point I’ll mention is that a big part of Dr. Casares’s and Carmen’s relationship is built on concealing several bars of gold inside a secret wall of the orphanage, which they use to fund their rebel allies.

I’d love to talk more about the story, but it’s very important that you go into this movie unspoiled.  The depth of its plot and the complexity of seemingly one-note characters is more satisfying than 99.9% of the horror movies you’ll ever see (and at least 80% more satisfying than any film from any other genre).  This is true in large part because del Toro and co-writers Antonio Trashorras and David Munoz tell a gripping story about love, war, and childhood first, and use the supernatural element as a metaphor for secrecy and the horrors of growing up.  This sounds lofty, I know, but in del Toro’s hands, events unfold naturally, without a hint of pretension.  The director also avoids using Santi for cheap jump-scares; he sets up moments that have been used in American horror movies to jolt audiences, but his timing is just off enough to alter their effect—making them more unsettling than standard “Boo!” gags.

Next to the story, two things impress me about The Devil’s Backbone.  The first is its visual creativity.  The sets are so lavishly designed that it looks like del Toro scouted real-life locations and asked himself, “Great!  Now, how can I make this look really gothic and weird, while still being plausible in the real world?”  It’s the same trick he’d apply to Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy years later, but his ideas feel the most natural here.  From the giant, inactive bomb that lives half-unearthed in the orphanage courtyard to the eerie poolroom beneath Jacinto’s workshop, the details are so out there that one gets the impression del Toro is pulling from memory rather than just imagination.

The gore effects are top-notch, too; which isn’t to say this is a bloodbath movie.  There’s a lot of violence in The Devil’s Backbone, but very little of it is supernatural (i.e. no creative eviscerations or exploding heads).  There’s a scene late in the film where a character awakens after an explosion; you can see that their ear is burned and caked with blood—but del Toro takes this a step further by showing the blood trickling out of his ear as he tries to stand up.  These are the kinds of touches that prove the filmmakers are interested in making a real movie, not just an “isn’t that cool” splat-fest.

Though I’ve gotta hand it to the makeup and digital effects artists: their vision of Santi is unlike anything I’ve seen.  I mentioned the constantly bleeding hole in his head; what I didn’t tell you is that the blood doesn’t spill down out of his forehead, rather it floats up and out into the air, as if Santi is constantly moving through water; the same is true of the field of floating blood drops that follow him like Pigpen’s dust clouds.  Santi is a fascinating ghost to look at, and this plays perfectly into his role in the story.  His features are frightening but not menacing, and in the few moments where he speaks, we get the sense that dark forces are at work, but not ones of all-consuming evil.

The second standout is the acting.  Maybe the fact that I don’t speak Spanish kept me from noticing sub-par performances (yes, kids, the movie is sub-titled; which I realize may be more frightening to some of you than a little ghost boy); but from what I could tell, even the child actors—who can be preciously problematic in this genre—were all great.  I was reminded of the kids’ baseball comedy The Sandlot, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.  The kids here serve the story well, coming off as anything but child actors; they’re neither too cutesy nor an army of Spanish-speaking Haley Joel Osments.

And the adult performances, particularly those of Paredes and Luppi will blow you away and break your heart.  The Jacinto character was a tad problematic, but that’s only because I kept noting how much Noriega looks like Eli Roth in Inglourious Basterds; strictly on an acting level, though, he does petulant greed very well, but balances it out with a bullying charm that keeps us wondering if the character has any redeeming qualities at all.

The easiest comparison to The Devil’s Backbone is Pan’s Labyrinth.  Both movies use the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath as the backdrop for scary coming-of-age stories.  Pan’s Labyrinth was more fantasy than horror, though, and if I’m being honest, I’d have to give the advantage to The Devil’s Backbone (a tough call, because I adore the other film).  The magic of Pan’s Labyrinth lay primarily in its bizarre underworld of creatures and catacombs, and while its villain is far scarier than the one in this movie, the story didn’t have as much to say about childhood as the movie that preceded it; it was Lewis Carroll to Backbone’s Friedrich Nietzsche.

What’s great about both movies, though, is the way in which del Toro keeps the politics of the war in the background.  Watching these movies, you’re never quite sure what the fighting is all about or who’s on the right side of the conflict; del Toro gives global affairs the same importance in his child characters’ lives as they would have in the real world; which is to say, “none”, until the bombs drop outside their windows.

The Devil’s Backbone is a cinephile’s dream.  There is not a single fault I can find with the movie, and I invite you to discover the beautiful, brutal, dark mysteries it has to offer.  You won’t be disappointed.

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