The Devil's Backbone

The Devil's Backbone


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

A boy is dumped at an orphanage two-and-a-half miles from habitation. He is 10. His name is Carlos. The civil war in Spain is nearing its end.

The shock of being abandoned matches the fear. The other boys steal his comics. He can't sleep at night. The unexploded bomb that dominates the courtyard, like a leaning tower of death, makes sounds when he taps it. He hears a voice calling his name. More like a sigh than a voice. He sees an apparition. It is a figure in rags with a chalk white face and deep black eyes and a wound on its head that oozes smoke.

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The building is old and isolated. The long echoing corridors are bare of furnishings. The white-haired professor who runs the orphanage with a one-legged lady (Marisa Paredes) is more preoccupied by his experiments. He has unborn babies floating in jars in a room upstairs. The fluid from the jars is alcoholic and has special properties. He bottles it and sells it in the village.

Santi was a boy who disappeared. He died. Some say he was killed. Carlos sleeps in his bed and the voice that he hears might come from that place where Santi rests, except he cannot rest.

Guillermo del Toro has created a perfect ghost story. The concept of the supernatural as being beyond life, within figments of imagination, neither flesh nor blood and yet alive in the mind's eye, does not fit the South American idea of magic realism. The living and the dead have a connection. They exist together. As with The Others, you can argue to what degree.

Del Toro is Mexican. He learnt his trade in special effects and made his name in 1992 as a writer/director with Cronos, which starred Frederico Luppi, who plays the professor in The Devil's Backbone, and went to New York four years later for Mimic, one of the most effective horror movies of its time. Coming to Spain, he recreates a period of uncertainty, brutality, fear and lawlessness, which exists in the air, as well as the character of Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who works as the caretaker and carries a grudge against the school.

Not since Louis Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants have children been used so effectively. The performances are never laboured or false - will the makers of Harry Potter please take note - and the atmosphere within the orphanage is beautifully realised. Boarding school is another world that runs on different rules. When parents are excluded, in this case because they are dead, this other world can take on a strangeness that becomes real.

Reviewed on: 29 Nov 2001
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Ghosts haunt an isolated orphanage during the last year of the Spanish Civil War.
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Read more The Devil's Backbone reviews:

Trinity ****

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writer: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Marisa Paredes, Frederico Luppi, Eduardo Noreiga, Fernando Tielve, Inigo Garces, Irene Visedo.

Year: 2001

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Mexico / Spain


EIFF 2001
Viva 2007

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