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The Devil's Backbone   B+

Sony Pictures Classics

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashhorras, David Munoz
Cast: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve, Íñigo Garcés, Irene Visedo, and Berta Ojea.

Review by Rob Vaux

The phenomenal success of The Sixth Sense marked a return to a more old-fashioned kind of horror film. Instead of gimmicky serial killers and inside jokes, we've recently been treated to classic stand-bys: mysterious houses, strange goings-on, ephemeral figures in spooky hallways. And unlike most trends spawned by an unexpected hit, the overall quality remains surprisingly high. Spanish filmmakers in particular have latched onto the resurgent genre: first with Alejandro Amenábar's The Others and now with The Devil's Backbone, a joint Spanish/Mexican production helmed by Chronos director Guillermo del Toro. Like The Others, it presents a taut, scary tale of hauntings and madness, while going its predecessor one further with a sobering meditation on the horrors of war.

Horror has always been a visceral genre, and few contemporary directors understand that as well as del Toro. The Devil's Backbone echoes with nameless, unsettling images, setting a perfect tone for the tale to follow. A stark orphanage stands amid a blasted Spanish plain. A bomb drops from a plane amid a raging thunderstorm. Horrific fetuses float in yellowish formaldehyde while drowned bodies lie hidden beneath disturbingly placid pools of water. Del Toro conjures these visions with deceptive discipline, using them not only to disturb us, but also to reinforce the themes of his morbid plot.

It's the end of the Spanish Civil War, and the wolf is baying at the door. For the newly arrived Carlos (Fernando Tielve) the confines of a Republican-held orphanage -- bursting with parentless boys and nearly a day from the nearest town -- are as much a prison as a sanctuary. The school's crippled headmistress (Marisa Paredes) keeps a cache of gold safe for the increasingly beleaguered ally forces, but what worries Carlos more is the ghostly image of a drowned boy (Junio Valverde) lurking in the corners of his vision. The phantom implies that something terrible lingers over the place, waiting like the unexploded bomb planted in the courtyard. But terrible events have become a daily occurrence in the war, and Carlos cannot be sure what its words imply. Does the ghost simply desire release? Or does it hide something far darker beneath its watery façade?

The supernatural elements here are real, but they speak of greater evils. They feed on the bloodshed around them, created by -- and reflecting -- the nightmares of the war. Though bound to the orphanage, their reach extends beyond the walls, and the world outside offers no escape for their victims. The unquiet spirits are almost preferable to the war, and the Republicans who run the orphanage -- sensing the futility of their cause -- openly speculate that they may as well be phantoms too. More than anything else, The Devil's Backbone is about their purgatory: an unending limbo between life and death that slowly seeps into their lives.

Del Toro contrasts the oppressive atmosphere with an ensemble of sympathetic and believable characters. Many exhibit strange quirks -- the headmistress has a wooden leg, one of the boys wears flight goggles -- but they don't feel forced or artificial. Their growing desperation gives us a strong set of surrogates to hold on to. None of the characters is wholly evil (though a villain eventually surfaces), but ordinary people caught up in terrible circumstances. Their struggles give us a rooting interest in the drama, and ensure that nihilism never overwhelms the rest of the proceedings. A sense of camaraderie, loyalty, even hope, hovers around the edges, tempering the melancholy with genuine humanity. The results are as affecting as they are unnerving.

Films like The Devil's Backbone are a comfort, not only with their competence and intelligence, but by their respect for the genre. Like The Sixth Sense, they realize that horror can do more than just give roller coaster shocks to teenagers. By tying it in to larger issues -- and by having the self-respect to develop those issues with such grace -- The Devil's Backbone speaks of alienation and loss as much as funhouse scares. It leaves us standing among the ruins, waiting for the ghosts it knows are there. Thanks to the strength of its story, we're more than willing to linger.

Review published 12.27.2001.

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