The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del diablo)
December 21, 2003
Guillermo del Toro,
Starring: Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve, Inigo Garces, Irene Visedo, Jose Manuel Lorenzo, Francisco Maestre, Junio Valverde, Berta Ojea, ,
Chronos (1993) was Guillermo del Toro’s auspicious feature film debut and it established him as an up-and-coming horror film auteur. Hollywood came calling and he made Mimic (1997), a compromised vision that still had del Toro’s stylistic flair but was ultimately sunk by too many cooks. Del Toro went back to his roots and made The Devil’s Backbone (2001), an atmospheric ghost story that plays out like a gothic Aesop’s fable.
It is 1939 and the Spanish Civil War is gradually coming to an end. A young boy named Carlos (Tielve) is left at an orphanage by his tutor. Upon his arrival, Carlos notices two peculiar things: an unexploded bomb sits in the courtyard, imbedded in the ground, and he sees the spectral image of a boy standing in a doorway. Del Toro has already subverted our expectations by having this apparition appear during the day (the stereotype would be at night) and with Carlos’ reaction. He isn’t scared or freaked out, but rather intrigued. He has already seen so much that nothing much fazes him anymore.
The orphanage is run by Dr. Casares (Luppi), a wise, kind old man and his wife, Carmen (Paredes). He is a man of science who does not believe in ghosts. As he says at one point, “Sometimes I think we are the ghosts.” Casares is at odds with the orphanage’s handyman, Jacinto (Noriega), a cruel person who is after a stash of gold stored in a safe. As Casare observes, “Fear sickens the soul,” and this is what has happened to Jacinto. He has become tainted and corrupted by fear and desperation.
Del Toro opts for a warm, amber colour scheme that goes well with the expansive desert landscape that surrounds the orphanage and gives the movie an antique feel. The director uses his location well. The camera roams the hallways, peers under beds and wanders into rooms, giving a real sense of the place. He also plays with shadows and darkness to create an ominous feeling. It is what we can’t see that is the most frightening aspect of the movie.
He also makes excellent use of more natural elements instead of relying on digital effects and fancy camerawork. The special effects for the ghost are a clever mix of good ol’ fashion prosthetics and modern CGI but Del Toro wisely uses the latter sparingly. This understated approach to the film’s style places more emphasis on its story, its characters and the performances of the actors.
The attention to detail is also very well done. For example, the character of Jaime (Garces) isn’t a simple one-dimensional bully as we are initially led to believe. As Carlos befriends him, we learn that Jaime aspires to be an artist. There are also little visual touches, like the lone ribbon attached to the bomb that flaps in the wind, that don’t overwhelm the movie; they are just enough to enrich the story.
Guillermo Del Toro has made it known that he is an avid film buff and also a fan of the DVD medium. To this end, he has included some excellent extras on this disc.
First up, he contributes an impressive audio commentary. He talks about his aim to take the gothic romance novel and transport it into the Spanish Civil War. Del Toro was also interested in fusing the war genre with the ghost story. He goes into great detail dissecting the elements of the gothic romance and how it applies to his movie in a very accessible and articulate way. There is not a single lull in this highly engaging and informative track.
“Director’s Thumbnail Track” allows one to watch the movie with selected sketches by Del Toro that he did for certain scenes. These drawings pop up in the corner of the screen so as not to obscure the entire frame.
“Making of Documentary” is a 27-minute look at various aspects of the movie. They are broken down into six segments that can be viewed separately or altogether. Del Toro and his co-screenwriter, Antonio Trashorras talk about the film’s classic ghost story and how they tried to put an original spin on it. The director, with his art director Cesar Macarron, talk about the look of the film and how they wanted characters to be framed in archways—“Humans confined by architecture,” as Del Toro puts it. This is an excellent look at how the movie was made and told in a concise and informative manner.
There are four deleted scenes with optional commentary by the director. He explains that they were cut mostly because they slowed down the pacing of the movie.
“Thumbnail/Storyboard Comparisons” feature six scenes from the movie where one can compare the thumbnail drawings, storyboard and the final product simultaneously.
“Galleries” contains sketches and drawings of characters, sets, the special effects and even a few scribblings from Del Toro’s notebook.
The Devil’s Backbone is a movie steeped in Spain’s rich tradition of magic, superstition and religion. The movie has modern resonance and meaning. The kids who live in the orphanage have nothing but what they brought with them. They are kind and respectful, for the most part, and don’t feel that the world owes them something. Del Toro seems to be saying that it’s not what you don’t have but what you are given that is important in life. The Devil’s Backbone is an evocative movie that stays with you long after it’s over.