The Devil's Backbone

08/19/2020 06:22

Film: The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del Diablo)

Year: 2001

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz

Starring: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega and Federico Luppi



This was a movie that came on my radar when the Gateway Film Center was doing an appreciation month for Guillermo del Toro, a co-writer and the director, and showing a few of his films. This was the only film that I unfortunately had to miss due to prior commitments. It is one though that I heard about on podcasts a few different times, so it was one that’s been on my list to see. Again, I have thank Duncan and the Summer Challenge Series for the 2000s over on The Podcast Under the Stairs as this made me watch it. The synopsis is after Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12-year-old whose father has died in the Spanish Civil War – arrives at an ominous boys’ orphanage, he discovers the school is haunted and has many dark secrets which he must uncover.

We start this off getting up to speed that it is I don’t know a lot about this war. I’ll be honest, what I do is thanks to del Toro. It is a stormy night and we’re following a plane as it drops a bomb. We follow it before cutting to a boy that is bleeding out. The question is then posed, what is a ghost? Tragedy doomed to live over.

The movie then shows us a couple of men driving with a boy, Carlos. They go to fort in the middle of the nowhere that is a converted orphanage. It is run by Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and she aided by Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) and Alma (Berta Ojea). They’ve taken in a lot of orphaned boys, many due to the war. They’re being funded by gold ingots that are making them technically part of the resistance against the Nationalists. At first, Carmen states that they can’t take in another boy, but regardless she allows Carlos to stay. She also only has one leg.

This orphanage though has seen its share of tragedy. The bomb that we saw earlier is stuck in the ground in the middle of the courtyard. Carlos puts his ear to it and thinks he hears something inside. It was said to have been defused and considered safe. There are also rumors of ghosts among the boys. They speak of one called ‘the one who sighs’ or something along those lines. A boy by the name of Santi (Junio Valverde) also went missing.

Carlos is left by the two men and it is sad. He chases after them, even leaving behind his suitcase when the strap breaks. He gives up, but Dr. Casares is there to comfort him. Carlos is shown to his bed, which makes the other boys nervous, as he takes bed 12 that belonged to Santi. Also, in this place is Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) who is a bit of a bully. There is more to the story of his attitude. There is also Conchita (Irene Visedo) who is a bit older and helps the adults. She coupled with Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Now he is a former orphan that pretty much aged out with no where to go. Conchita believes they’re going to get a farm together and leave this place. It appears he just wants to leave as this place harbors bad memories for him.

Things get set down a path when Carlos is awoken by a noise. He accidently knocks over a pitcher of water and this upsets the others as they’re only given one a night and not supposed to leave the room. Jaime tells him that he needs to go to the kitchen to fetch more. Carlos is sly and calls him out so they both go. Things take a turn though when both are called to the basement. This seems to be where Santi is haunting. The two make noise that draws Jacinto. He has a bad attitude and reveals a safe behind a wall. The key he has won’t open it though. When he learns that Carlos is out that night, he scolds him. We see though that Jacinto has a violent streak. There are dark secrets held with the walls of this orphanage that involve murder and deception, which everything comes to a head when the Nationalists are getting dangerously close.

That is where I’m going to leave my recap and I have to say, this is an interesting film. Much like what I expect from del Toro, this kind of feels like a dark fairy but not to the extent that you’d get with his other film Pan’s Labyrinth. This does seem more like a cautionary tale for sure with some interesting social commentary.

The first thing that I wanted to delve into here is that being during the Spanish Civil War is interesting. It draws an interesting parallel to something going on in the United States that I can correlate this are to the protests going on and there are people taking advantage of it by looting and causing property damage. There are things during these that are for the cause, but there is also a bit of lawlessness that comes with it and that is something we see here. Gold is trying to be taken and not used for the purpose it was there for. Plus, this is an orphanage full of boys that do not have families and if they disappear, there is no one to look for them. They are already displaced. An example is that Carlos’ father died in the war. He doesn’t know about it yet though.

To get back to a previous point about the dark fairy tale aspect, I really like that del Toro takes this back to the older concept that ghosts aren’t always a scary thing. Something bad happened to Santi so he’s forced to continue to live out what happened to him. It is sad to be honest. He is scaring people, but I don’t think he really means to and it takes Carlos to see that he is reaching out for help. There is another ghost that gets introduced later and I really like that the supernatural aspect is always there as an undercurrent, but not the focus. There is a real story with real people that could have happened and the ghosts are just there to set things right. This also gives it a gothic feel which this feels like the precursor to Crimson Peak.

Before moving on to other aspects, I want to go over the character of Jacinto. It is interesting that I’ve seen another movie this actor was in called Thesis recently where he’s considered a bad person in that for a good portion of the movie. He just plays the villain so well. With him though, he’s angry. He spent most of his life in this orphanage and has nothing really to look forward to in life. It does make him a tragic character in that respect. The problem though is instead of wanting to do good things, he is a ruthless person. Carmen uses him, but doesn’t necessarily treat him like a person so it is sad and it causes him to lash out at the younger boys. She makes an interesting comment about him being ‘a prince with no nation’ which I take that he feels powerful and entitled, but he doesn’t have anything to rule over.

I’ll transition this over to talk about the other characters. I like that we get some flawed characters for sure. Carmen is doing a good thing by helping to raise these boys with limited resources. She is also using Jacinto in the carnal way. I can’t blame him for his confusion and being hurt. It sucks to be used as he is. I also rope in Dr. Casares who has loved her from when they met and she was married at the time. She has needs and I get it. Luppi was solid in his performance. I was also impressed with Tielve. For how young he was in this movie, I thought he did a really good job. It can be tough for actors with limited experience. The same can be said for Garcés. I love how he is a bully in the start, but he’s harboring a dark secret someone that young shouldn’t be dealing with. I thought the acting was good across the board.

If there is an issue that I had with this movie is that I feel it runs just a bit long. I did find myself losing interest at about the halfway point. For me, trimming this down to say an hour and half would have made it run tighter and I don’t feel we would get that moment of dragging. When we got to that moment, it did pick up after that, but that is something that just didn’t work as well as I wanted personally.

The couple things here that I wanted to go over would be the effects. I think that the practical effects we get are good. The blood looks real and what happens at the climax of the movie made me cringe. There’s also a scene where we get an explosion and the aftermath there was good. The only real issue I had is the CGI didn’t necessarily hold up. There are things with Santi that makes sense at the reveal but didn’t look great on the screen. Other than that, the cinematography was good in my opinion.

To close this out would be the soundtrack. I’m glad about the feel of the movie that I laid out above that they went with a more orchestral score. It gives it more of that fairy tale and gothic feel. When I’m watching it, I’m thinking more of a classical ghost story from the United Kingdom and that music helps to fit that mood in my opinion.

Now with that said, I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t see this in the theater when I had the chance. Regardless though, this is another solid film from del Toro in my opinion. I really like the backdrop where I believe these things could happen. We have some good acting and some characters with a dual nature that works for me. The story and the social commentary are good as well along with the practical effects and the soundtrack. The only drawbacks are that it feels like it runs too long and some of the CGI doesn’t hold up. I think this is a good movie, bordering on great. A couple things here or there could be into that great category in my opinion.


My Rating: 8.5 out of 10