We all know and love Guillermo del Toro but interestingly enough, no one here at A-Z Horror had seen the movie that the man himself calls his favorite effort in the genre, so we had to fix that. The Devil’s Backbone is a 2001 ghost story set at an orphanage during the Spanish civil war. To find out what we thought about this one, head on down to the written review below but beware because there are all the major plot spoilers for this almost 20-year-old film. Prefer your content in audio format? We got you covered there, too. Just click that podcast button and you’ll find it.
Reviewed by: Jake
Our setting is a remote orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. The joint is overseen by Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes). The couple gets help from a young man named Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) and a young teacher named Conchita (Irene Visedo). The orphanage/school is aligned on the republican side of the war, and we are immediately treated to a bomb being dropped by Franco’s fascist army right into the quad in the middle of the grounds. Luckily, it’s a dud and it doesn’t explode. We come to learn that there is a large amount of gold hidden somewhere on the grounds.
Soon, a boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is brought to the orphanage because his father was killed in the war. He almost immediately gets into shit with the obligatory bully/larger/older kid, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés). The typical bully vs new kid trying to make an impression thing ensues and Carlos is eager to show his bravery, taking on pretty much whatever dare the other kids test him with. It doesn’t take long for him to begin having run-ins with a ghost, who the kids refer to as “the one who sighs”.
As time passes and the war rages outside the walls of the orphanage, Casares makes the call that the group must flee with the children to safety in France. Jacinto, who it is revealed has been looking for the gold to steal for some time, causes an explosion and kills several of the students as well as Carmen before fleeing. A wounded and grieving Casares vows to protect the children when Jacinto returns but he dies of his wounds just before Jacinto and a small posse return, herd the kids up and lock them in a closet while they raid the grounds.
Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that the ghost Carlos has been encountering is that of Santi, a student who Jacinto accidentally killed after Santi saw him looking for the gold. Jacinto dumped his body in a pool (no idea why it’s there, you guys) below the school. The kids are able to escape the room and fight back, stabbing Jacinto with makeshift spears and dumping him in the same pool where he disposed Santi. His pockets are weighed down with the gold he had collected and as he frantically tried to offload it to save himself, Santi appears and drags him under. Meanwhile, the surviving kids begin the long trek to the nearest village for help.
What the Movie Does Right
This is a very well-realized world that is easy to step into. On the podcast, our discussion started lumping a lot of big things into the discussion way more quickly than normal (the sets, props, costuming, cinematography, etc.) but I think they are all for this reason. It’s really interesting to think about the situation that the story poses. There is a civil war happening. Orphaned children are collected and brought to this remote enclave where they are to be kept safe from the war, but the fort where they are located is run by a group that is actively helping the republican rebels, which draws attacks from the fascists. On top of that, you have a storyline unfold with Jacinto essentially being a rat who is out for himself and seeking the riches, no matter the cost. ON TOP OF THAT, there is a supernatural element to the whole thing with the ghost who roams the grounds. This is a lot of stuff.
You can feel how it’s all sort of bearing down on the children during the film, and even before we know the ghost is real and why he is there, the idea that it is some sort of magical escape from all the very adult things happening around them, it’s a pretty dark escape. I really liked how, when all was said and done, it wasn’t necessarily the ghost or even the war that the kids had to fear most, but the betrayal of the people who were supposed to be there to protect them. Basically, Jacinto. Fuck that guy. The devil being in the walls the whole time is nothing new but I thought it worked very well here.
I also want to put the design of Santi here. Sure, there is quite a bit of CG going on in his design which we traditionally we aren’t super into, but A) he’s a ghost and B) I don’t give a shit because look at this kid:
We all know del Toro as an absolute genius when it comes to character (specifically monster) design. Things are no different here and I love what they did with Santi. The blood trail that trails from him, even after he is no longer visible, is great. The porcelain-esque crack in his forehead where he was mortally wounded is an interesting stylistic choice that I think works. The bony CG overlay thing that is applied is also eerie. IT’s just a very cool look and though it is vastly more subtle than a lot of what del Toro has done, I think it ranks among his best.
What the Movie Does Wrong
The pacing and overall slow-burn quality that this film has will definitely not be for everyone. If someone were to watch this and say they found it boring, I would have no issue with that take. This is certainly more of a plodding and slow build, and I think the most damning thing from a traditional horror-perspective is that the build is more in service of the mystery and drama elements of the film, which can feel a bit underwhelming from a horror perspective. The bread and butter of this movie are how it will linger and make you think about what the kids faced before you knew how things would play out. I’m not sure this would get better on a second viewing, either. I don’t think I’d even want to watch this movie twice. That’s kind of a weird spot to be in.
Aside from that, I do not think this movie did many things actively wrong BUT I need to give a quick shout out to the fact that this movie is called The Devil’s Backbone and that has very little if anything to do with the film. You could probably stretch and find metaphorical ties to the health condition, but they go to the length of including a scene about the medical condition as if they realized they had no reason for the name. That might actually make it worse.
Also, what the hell is that pool below the school? If you’re gonna tell me it’s the well then I ain’t buying it because there’s been a decomposing body in it for quite some time and no one is sick.
Story: 7.5 - You’re probably watching this movie for its story. There is a lot here in a deceptively simple core. That being said, it’s certainly not without some chunkiness along the way and doesn’t totally stick the landing but very good nonetheless.
World-Building/Immersion: 5 - This is in a foreign language and it’s pretty damn slow. Typically that would lead to a very low score but I’m keeping it at a 5 because the world of the orphanage is both claustrophobic and isolated, which works pretty hard for helping you identify with the kids’ situation.
Scare Factor: 3.5 - I love how Santi looks and there are some adult fears to be had here in terms of feeling or the kids’ predicament but this is not a very scary film.
Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 7.5 - Again, I love how Santi looks (and don’t love double counting but it needs to happen this time), and there are great sets, props, and costumes in this film. From an audio standpoint, the score didn’t do a lot from me but I wasn’t annoyed by it.
Overall: 7 - This is a film that many consider a stone-cold classic. While it didn’t hit me in that way and I felt just a bit let down by this one, I still really enjoyed it and would argue that it is required viewing for genre fans if for no other reason than to see an early offering from Guillermo del Toro.