THE DEVIL'S BACKBONEMOVIE REVIEW
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Head Production Designer
JOSEPH CROSS, BRIANA EVIGAN,
Special Effects Make-Up
A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (El Espinazo del Diablo), written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, is a tale of childhood horrors, of despair and perseverance.
Told through the eyes of twelve-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who is brought to the orphanage, a fortress-like building in the middle of nowhere, Spain, a day and a half walk from the nearest town. Carlos, who has no idea his father is already dead, is abandoned by his tutor and left to face the hostilities of his new home by himself.
Almost immediately after the film begins, Carlos sees the ghost of a young boy in the kitchen doorway, a ghost who later calls to Carlos, seems to want to communicate with him. And with a child's typical open-mindedness, Carlos investigates the strange sounds until he realizes what he's discovered and flees, terrified, back to the relative safety of his bed.
The ghost, who may or may not be the missing boy named Santi (Junio Valverde), and whose name is carved into the locker above Carlos's bed, is common knowledge among the boys but is not something they care to discuss. They refer to the phantom as "he who sighs", and this ghost story unravels to reveal a murder mystery, set against the political backdrop of civil war.
Carlos is taken care of by Professor Casares (Federico Luppi: CRONOS) and his love interest, headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), a woman fighting for the cause in her own way, by stashing gold ingots to help finance the army while the children around her barely scrape by, surviving on bread and milk. Yes the characters, even in their misguided ideologies, are sympathetic and human. You might not agree with their cause but you can certainly understand it.
The school's handyman Jacinth (Eduardo Noriega), himself an orphan and former student, hates the place and plans to leave with fiancée Conchita (Irene Visedo), who is the cook. Jacinth knows about the gold and his motivation for working at the school is pure greed. Yet in spite of his evil motivations, Del Toro has written Jacinth with credible flaws and deep psychological problems, nuances of unsettling emotion that make him so much more than a typical movie bad guy.
The other orphans are just as convincingly portrayed. Jaime (Inigo Garces), the bully, has a soft side, and he's a tall, gangly kid trying to get used to his own body. Not the typical schoolyard bully, Jaime reveals dark secrets that have plagued him.
Del Toro is a director with a keen eye for visual beauty. His ghost, often disturbing, is also quite beautiful, uniquely handled. The spectral child, floating in the hallway appears to be surrounded by droplets of water, a stream of watery blood flowing from the gash in his head. The ghost's eyes terrified me - possessed-looking lenses that reminded me of Linda Blair's in THE EXORCIST.
If there is any drawback to the film - and this is more of a nit - it's the rather strangely proofread subtitles. For example, the ghost, called "he who sighs", was often called "he who sights". Not a big deal, but it can be distracting.
But this in no way takes away from the superbly acted, brilliantly directed film. I'm hoping it gets the exposure it deserves, that it takes over theaters the way the Italian "Life is Beautiful" did in 1997, and becomes a sleeper hit. Given the right exposure, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE can become a classic.