4 out of 5 stars

There are many ways to describe the marvellous work by writer-director Guillermo del Toro. He’s a visionary who ensnares his audience’s imagination with horror, fairytales, science fiction, and Gothic romance stories. Throughout his career, del Toro has presented many different worlds of fantasy he spent years immersed in. Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein directly inspired his own Cronos (1993) and Crimson Peak (2015), Hollywood blockbusters like Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004) show his love for comic-books, and Pacific Rim (2013) was a loving homage to Japanese kaiju cinema such as Godzilla / Gojira (1954). By infusing classic folktales with a modern sensibility, del Toro has become an advocate of phantasmagorical cinema.

Following his miserable experience working for Miramax on Mimic (1997), del Toro relocated to Mexico to reassert his independence. Determined to never relive such creatively conflicted experience, the filmmaker began writing screenplays for Mephisto’s Bridge and The List of Seven. After those projects fell through, New Line Cinema offered him the opportunity to direct Blade II. However, the project would have to wait as he decided to revisit a script he co-write with Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz while at university, The Devil’s Backbone / El Epinazo del Diablo. It was the perfect opportunity for del Toro to rediscover his love for movies. He later reflected that he “…. was sick of Hollywood politics by that point, and I wanted to direct my personal movie I’d had on the back burner for sixteen years. Doing that would give me room and breathing space to realise I did have a career away from the Hollywood studio system.”

Unfortunately, after the troubled production of Mimic, Hollywood was hesitant to offer del Toro more work. He pitched The Devil’s Backbone to the Mexican Institute of Film, but they rejected the idea. The eventual solution to the his problems arrived thanks to Spanish producer Pedro Almodóvar (Pain and Glory), who professed a fondness for del Toro’s first feature, Cronos during a meeting, saying “I knew Cronos and was very, very impressed by it. It was a truly original horror movie. So my brother, Agustin, and I contacted him and he told us about his experience with Miramax. How awful it was in terms of freedom and how he really needed to get back his own language. So we took advantage of that.” Released from the creative shackles of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, del Toro would finally reclaim his artistry and define his career with his own Gothic horror, The Devil’s Backbone.

Set during the final months of the Spanish Civil War, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is abandoned and sent to the Santa Lucia orphanage. Administered by the headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and ageing professor Dr Casares (Frederico Luppi), the facility serves as a sanctuary for children of the Republican militia. Carlos never feels completely comfortable in his new environment and immediately senses a dark presence. During his first night, the young boy encounters the ghost of a former orphan named Santi (Junio Valverde), and the mysterious spirit predicts terrible suffering, warning him “many of you will die.” As Carlos begins a tenuous friendship with Jamie (Inigo Garces), he learns about Santi’s disappearance and uncovers a dark secret. Meanwhile, as Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) discovers the orphanage’s secret cache of gold, the ghost’s prediction becomes depressingly accurate.

While del Toro has become synonymous with monsters, it’s his earnestness and adoration for his characters that create a life that expands beyond the script. During The Devil’s Backbone, he began writing miniature biographies for each of his actors to research. Each of these briefs described the character’s lives and encouraged the cast to deliver more convincing performances. After establishing a credible partnership with del Toro during Cronos, Federico Luppi is dignified and compassionate as the aged professor, Dr Casares, mirroring the same affliction in Luis Buñuel’s Tristana (1970). The kindhearted Casares is deeply in love with the headmistress but continues to suffer in silence. Although he knows of her affair with the caretaker, he remains forever loyal to her. The actor’s almost poetic in his thoughtfulness and beautifully conveys his suppressed longing with the smallest look. Marisa Paredes (All About My Mother) is also a powerful screen presence as the orphanage’s principal, Carmen. Displaying profound grief and insatiable longing, the headmistress is torn between the commitment of her nationalist ideals and physical desires. 

The true villain of this ghost story is the sinister groundskeeper and former student, Jacinto. The wonderful Eduardo Noriega (Vantage Point) delivers a poignantly cruel performance with realistic monstrosity. He’s unloving to his fiancé (Irene Visedo), callous with the orphans, and shows contempt towards Casares. Described as “the man without warmth” from a childhood photo, he’s a scared boy hiding under a facade of machismo. Abandoned at the orphanage by his father, he carries a pain as heavy as the gold he intends on stealing. Additionally, the child actors play their roles with the utmost conviction without a trace of sentimentality. Insisting they didn’t rehearse their dialogue with their parents, del Toro encouraged them to draw upon memories to create their characters. Making his feature-length debut, Fernando Tielve (Goya’s Ghost) is earnest and engaging as the young Carlos. He discovers that sometimes ghosts needn’t be feared when there are human monsters in the world. Whereas Inigo Garces (Secrets of the Heart) is compelling as the troubled youth, Jamie. Initially, presented as a younger version of Jacinto, he eventually chooses a path of redemption when the moment arrives.

The Devil’s Backbone may disappoint fans of flashier horror due to its methodical pacing and dependence on atmosphere. However, considering this was only del Toro’s third feature, there’s a graceful quality within his directorial style. Unburdened by studio interference, the filmmaker reunited with his frequent cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro. While collaborating on Cronos, Navarro was outspoken and temperamental but formed a creative unity with del Toro. Each composition is meticulously structured as del Toro creates tension and suspense through traditional methods. The lighting, dramatic staging, and colour allows for a daunting atmosphere to build more naturally. He explained that he “… bust my ass off for the movies I do. I try and make them look gorgeous and big within their budget. It’s all about communication with the crew. I create these significant memos where I describe the colour palette of the movie.” The colour of the filmmaker’s oeuvre is tremendously important and the palette of The Devil’s Backbone is of complete artistry. The desaturated orange tones during the daytime and the ghostly blue nighttime sequences create a masterful combination of western-Gothic.

What makes del Toro’s work such a memorable experience is his visual aesthetic. While The Devil’s Backbone may not be as ornate as The Shape of Water (2017), Cesar Macarron’s (A Perfect Day) production design is equally as impressive. Filmed beneath the unforgiving sun of Talamanca, the orphanage’s formidable exterior and ghostly interiors were inspired by Carlos Giménez’s graphic novel Paracuellos. An autobiographical comic that depicted his childhood experience growing up in an unforgiving orphanage that resembled a concentration camp. As later demonstrated with Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the oxidising metal, wooden structures, and giant cistern have since become woven into the filmmaker’s singular vision. Whereas strange oddities fill Dr Caseres’s laboratory, including deformed foetuses with the so-called “Devil’s Backbone” (spina bifida) preserved in jars of amber. The most iconic piece of imagery is the unexploded bomb standing dominantly in the centre of the courtyard. Serving as a constant metaphorical reminder of the atrocities raging outside the orphanage walls. Del Toro imbues every detail with beautifully haunting imagery that presses indelibly from his imagination into yours. 

What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time after time again? An instance of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber—Dr Casares.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Devil’s Backbone is del Toro’s portrayal of a ghostly apparition. While most depictions of spectres display the characteristics of poltergeists or malevolence, del Toro forces his audience to view ghosts differently. As with so many of the filmmaker’s fantastical imaginings, the inspiration for Santi was drawn from a childhood experience. At a young age, del Toro heard the sound of his deceased uncle sighing from a bedroom. Instead of being terrified by the experience, he transformed the memory into a motif that could be used creatively. “As a kid, where other people saw horror, I saw beauty,” he later explained. The key element to understanding del Toro’s work is that sympathy and melancholia triumph over terror. Similar to the vampire in Cronos and the spirits of Crimson Peak, the ghost of The Devil’s Backbone evokes compassion in equal proportions. Creating a vivid impression, Santi resembles a porcelain doll with blood permanently blooming like smoke from an open wound. While haunting the passageways of the orphanage, he ambiguously warns the orphans “many of you will die.” However, the spirit can not rest until Carlos discovers the orphanage’s deeper secrets. Del Toro understands that ghosts aren’t harbingers of death but melancholic messengers urgently attempting to communicate to the living.

Sharing numerous similarities explored further in Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone works simultaneously as a supernatural horror and political allegory. During its earliest incarnations, the story was set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution. However, despite his personal connections to Mexico, del Toro became infatuated with the Spanish Civil War. Describing it as “the precursor of all the fascist conflicts in Europe”, the pain and tragedy of the conflict underscore the sense of horror throughout. A penitent influence is Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a lyrical study of childhood created under Francisco Franco’s regime. Del Toro distinctively draws parallels between the stranded orphans of Santa Lucia and the country’s abandonment of the fascist dictator. Carlos represents the stifled Spanish citizen, rallying for the rights of the underclass. Whereas the ruthless authoritarianism is perfectly personified by Jacinto, a vicious embodiment of how fascism had eroded the Spanish soul. Driven by the wrong impulses, he soon reveals the worst depths of human depravity. As fascism edges around the frame, del Toro reminds his audience that most atrocities are not supernatural but human beings losing sight of their humanity.

Unfortunately, The Devil’s Backbone was overshadowed by Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) upon release. Grossing a modest $6.5M worldwide, audiences weren’t ready for del Toro’s cathartic darkness. However, while it wasn’t commercially successful, it did receive the recognition it deserved after the release of Pan’s Labyrinth. Similar to the unexploded bomb standing in the courtyard, this compelling and provocative supernatural horror now dominates del Toro’s filmography. The beautiful visuals and thematic undertones exploring the darkest shades of humanity have since become staples in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. While many would argue The Shape of Water is the pinnacle of the filmmaker’s career so far, undoubtedly his artistic inclinations began with The Devil’s Backbone. Displaying a grander sense of maturity promised within Cronos while fuelled by the negative experience of Mimic, del Toro demonstrates he was ready for more ambitious projects.

SPAIN • MEXICO | 2001 | 106 MINUTES | 1:85:1 | COLOUR | SPANISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Guillermo del Toro.
writers: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras & David Muñoz.
starring: Marisa Paredes, Frederico Luppi, Eduardo Noriega, Fernando Tielve & Inigo Garces.