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21. May 2004 at 06:04
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Anhelo Producciones/Canal+ España, Mexico/Spain, 2001, Rated R
Columbia Tristar Home Video

Review by Gerry Carpenter

Background and Plot

While the US film industry and Hollywood in particular clearly dominated genre filmmaking in the 20th century, I'm beginning to think that the international film community is staking a claim to the 21st. For the most part, Hollywood seems to be drying up—turning more and more to mindless big budget effects extravaganzas written by committees of hacks with no creativity whatsoever. International filmmakers, however, are turning out some of the best genre films ever made. Just consider this past year for example (2001). Hollywood produced JURASSIC PARK 3 (mindless retread of the first two), THE MUMMY RETURNS (fun but basically a formula piece), EVOLUTION (humorless SFX comedy), and PLANET OF THE APES (pointless and boring—never should have been made) to name just a few. On the other hand, Chilean director Alejandro Amenábar gave us THE OTHERS—smart, atmospheric, gothic-style horror. French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet told us the story of AMELIE—simply one of the most delightful romantic fantasies I've ever seen. Another Frenchman, Christophe Gans gave us BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF—a period horror piece with some Hong Kong style action. Japanese director Mamoru Oshii created AVALON (not yet released in the US), a live-action anime dealing with a virtual reality World War II Poland. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro gave us a rather unconventional ghost story in THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. And lastly (but not least), New Zealander Peter Jackson stormed American shores with THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (made with American money, but very much a New Zealander picture). The visions of these filmmakers are fresh and daring. Rather than following formulaic plots and conventional methods, they are willing to strike out in new directions, use new technologies in innovative ways, and challenge their audiences. Even more importantly, with the commercial success of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, we are beginning to see foreign language films receive a wider release in their original languages. Films that were once doomed to limited release on the art house circuit are now showing up in the multiplexes, and while the public is not embracing them all, many are getting far more attention than they would have in years past. I hope Hollywood will prove me wrong, that they will stop churning out the crap and start making great films once again. In the mean time, I'll have these great international genre films to enjoy.

Guillermo del Toro's THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, it is the story of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a young boy who is taken into a remote boarding school after his father is killed in the war. Shortly after arriving at the school, Carlos discovers that the school is haunted by the ghost of a young boy, whom the other students know only as "the one who sighs." Tormented by both the other boys and the mysterious spirit, Carlos soon finds himself in the center of a battle for survival, surrounded on all sides by war, greed, and cruelty.

What Works

Guillermo del Toro's direction is excellent. Even though quite a bit of background and set up are required for the story to work, he doesn't waste any time getting to the supernatural elements that are its heart. The narrative begins with a man's voice talking about ghosts—speculating on what they might be—and the ghost's first appearance happens in the first 15 minutes of the film. Yet despite the fact that the movie falls firmly into the horror category, del Toro doesn't neglect the more dramatic elements of the story. Equally important are the characters and their relationships, the history of the country and the war being fought there, and the boys' coming of age story. He does a magnificent job balancing the dramatic and horror elements of the story, without ever losing the momentum that is so critical to a horror film. This is the first Guillermo del Toro film I have seen, and I am now very interested in the rest of his work. For some reason, I missed MIMIC and haven't picked it up yet on video. I have heard very good things about his film directorial debut: CRONOS. After seeing THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, I'm very optimistic about his involvement in the upcoming BLADE 2 and HELLBOY. He is definitely a director to watch in my opinion.

Guillermo del Toro was also involved in writing the script (along with Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz). It is truly a great story, filled with lots of interesting little details. In one amusing moment, the boys are comparing marbles and one boy points out one that was home made "using snot and dirt. It took him a whole year." Little details like this add a lot to the realism of the story. In addition, the characters act like real people with real emotions; they grow and change. Rather than just the cardboard cutouts that we are used to Hollywood giving us, these people live and breathe...and die. And most importantly we care about them. Also, the ending of the story is absolutely perfect. One of the most well crafted stories, I've seen filmed in a long time.

The period setting of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) also works very well—more specifically the story couldn't work without it. The situation is integral to the conflicts and dynamics of the story. Plus, it adds a lot to the atmosphere of the movie, making it somehow classier than the average horror film. It reminded me quite a bit of Louis Malle's celebrated film AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS, which is about boys at a boarding school in occupied France during World War II. The dramatic elements in THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE are just as compelling, but with the added bonus of a great horror story.

The performances are for the most part very good. The cast consists of a large number of young boys in addition to the adult actors, and del Toro draws out some very natural and moving performances. I particularly liked Íñigo Garcés performance as the troubled youth Jaime. Among the adult actors, Marisa Paredes as Carmen and Federico Luppi as Casares, the teachers at the school gave wonderful, textured performances. Like I said, these characters are real people, and I can't imagine them any other way.

THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is also one of the best examples of how computer-generated (CG) special effects can be done right. Never once do they threaten to overwhelm or take over the story. They are used only to support the story and do so very effectively. The "aura" of the ghost is particularly good.

What Doesn't Work

Some of the symbolism in the story is a bit too deep for me. I never did figure out what the significance was of the title. "The Devil's Backbone" is referred to in the movie, when Casares shows Carlos a fetus that has been preserved in a specimen bottle. The fetus has an exposed spine due to a birth defect of some sort (spina bifida maybe?). What the significance is of that in regards to the rest of the plot is beyond me. There are a few other things like that, which are either too deep for me or never adequately developed.

About the only disappointment I have in THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is that it never really scared or horrified me. Don't get me wrong, the horror elements are very well done, but I never felt a palpable sense of terror like with THE HAUNTING (1963) or THE OMEN. To its credit, however, the movie is refreshingly free of cheap scares.

The Final Word

THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE is one of the best and most original new horror films I've seen in years. If this is any indication of the genre films international filmmakers have to offer us in the years ahead, I have very high hopes for the 21st century indeed. DVD or VHS
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Sir Jacob
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Reply #1 - 21. May 2004 at 13:27
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Thank you for bringing this one back to the attention of those who haven't seen it yet, boy55.  That's an interesting article about it.  Smiley

You'll see a nice gallery that we have for it at the link above by clicking on the movie title.  I know we have many new members and guests at BA since then, but here's a link to the review that Cal did for us (before he or most of the rest of us had seen it) and the replies of others from a couple of years ago:

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Sir J
« Last Edit: 05. Jul 2008 at 04:00 by Zabladowski »  
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Reply #2 - 21. May 2004 at 16:14
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A very interesting review and I agree with just about everything he said.  He’s wrong, though, about the total absence of ‘cheap scares’- There is one the director playfully included, where the ghost’s eye appears on the other side of the keyhole that Fernando is peering through. I didn’t think it was cheap though.  I thought it was kind of neat. Wink

Also, I don’t see this as a ‘horror’ movie - it wasn’t intended to make us jump out of our seats.  The ghost boy conjures a mood that is sinister and melancholy and keeps us wondering about the purpose of his being, or just who is the target of his vengeance.
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Reply #3 - 21. May 2004 at 21:17
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You mean this scene?

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I agree it's pretty scary.

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