The Devil’s Backbone is a welcome addition to the resurgence of films trying to capture the feel of classic horror. Eschewing the trendy self-consciousness and cheap scares found in the I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream movies, The Devil’s Backbone relies more on atmosphere to generate a sense of dread. Just as The Others looked to “Turn of the Screw”/The Innocents as inspiration, The Devil’s Backbone is an homage to horror comic books, and comic books themselves play a part in the story.
The setting is the Spanish Civil War. Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) has just arrived at the Santa Lucia School, located in the midst of a desolate field of dried golden grass a day’s walk from the nearest town. Home to orphaned and abandoned children, the school is run by old Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes), widow of the leftist activist who started Santa Lucia. Helping them are the curt caretaker, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), himself once a scamp of the school, and the beautiful peasant cook, Conchita (Irene Visedo), who fantasizes about running away with Jacinto to a farm in Granada.Carlos, coming from a more affluent and educated background than the other children, quickly makes friends and enemies.He particularly earns the ire of the school bully, Jaime (�nigo Garces), who gets Carlos in trouble whenever he can. No patsy, Carlos gives as much as he takes, slowly acquiring Jaime’s respect.
Shortly before Carlos’ arrival, a student named Santi (Junio Valverde) mysteriously disappeared on the same night an undetonated bomb fell from the sky. The unmovable bomb remains half earthed in the school courtyard. From within it, Carlos can hear rumbling noises which sound like what a dark, dank cave would make if it could talk.Carlos takes Santi’s bed, and at night he sees fleeting shadows and hears the pitter-pat of footsteps echoing from the outside hall.The other children talk enigmatically about “the one who sighs,” but Carlos is apparently the only one who sees him, an apparition in the form of a rotting child with a splintered skull that forever billows clouds of blood.
Director Guillermo del Toro, who previously concocted Cronos and Mimic, writes with Antonion Trashorras and David Munoz to provide The Devil’s Backbone with creepiness and eccentricity to spare. Details like Carmen’s missing leg and Casares’ jarred fetuses enhance the film’s eeriness without quite going overboard. At the beginning, the film notes that Carlos has been brought to the school as an orphan, though he himself does not know it. One would expect that revelation to come later in some maudlin scene, but smartly, it never does.Within that lack of resolution is an underlying horror that never goes away. Where the writing has problems is in character development.Carmen and Casares’ relationship is never sufficiently fleshed out to have much impact come payoff time near the end, and Jacinto is too one-note in his smoldering fury.
A lot is redeemed by little Fernando Tielve, who gives Carlos a fetching fresh-faced eagerness.While Marisa Paredes has given birth to many a complex character in her collaborations with Pedro Almodovar as director (here one of the producers), she manages little in her underwritten role here. Instead, Tielve quite capably carries the picture.Everyone else ends up as background.
Guillermo del Toro has the ghost appear too frequently, softening the scare effect since what is most frightening is often what cannot be seen. Luckily, in these sequences, he is abetted by Jorge Hernandez, who superbly lathers on the fright make-up, and Guillermo Navarro, who applies just the right level of lighting.When all is said and done however, it is the sound crew that is responsible for more eeriness in the film than anyone else.
The Devil’s Backbone avoids the Grand Guignol until the end, but at least del Toro does not revel in it. The movie certainly supplies more than the requisite scares, though like most horror comics, it ultimately is no more and no less than a story of terror well-told.For a good, riveting horror movie, that is all that is needed.