El Espinazo Del Diablo – The Devil’s Backbone (15) Dir: Guillermo Del Toro (2001)
Guillermo Del Toro is an incredibly unique director. The Mexican auteur has carved out a niche for himself in world cinema delivering independantly backed films and studio efforts in equal measure. Operating using this “one for you, one for me” policy Del Toro keeps audiences and critics guessing.
His debut feature was a curious Mexico-set horror drama hybrid treading new ground on well-worn vampire lore, Cronos.He followed this with Mimic, made in Hollywood, telling the tale of giant bugs beneath the surface of a busy city. Returning to his native tongue, he followed Mimic with The Devil’s Backbone, a gothic-styled horror set amidst the Spanish Civil War (a subject he would return to in the wonderful El Labertino Del Fauno – Pan’s Labyrinth). The Devil’s Backbone weaves a tale encompassing traditionalist ghost story, murder mystery and heartbreaking human drama.
Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is a 10-year-old boy dropped off at a remote Spanish orphanage after his father is killed, unbeknownst to him, in the war. While completing the rites-of-passage missions any new kid should expect to undertake he sees a mysterious spectral figure of a boy. The other boys initially dismiss Carlos’ claims, but soon enough, with further mention of “the one who sighs”, they start to come round to the idea that all is not well.
Meanwhile, a tricky love triangle develops between the four adults at the head of the orphanage. (A love square?!) The caring Dr Casares (Federico Luppi) and elegant, war-wounded Carmen (Marisa Parades) head up the administration and education sides of the establishment, while the hot-headed Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) maintains the grounds alongside his timid fiancee, Conchita (Irene Visedo). When it becomes clear that Jacinto (a former orphan resident himself) is only interested in the gold kept locked away to aid with the running of the orphanage, Dr Casares and Carmen, putting her lustful feelings aside, confront him.
The film is blessed with many wonderful sequences involving the ghostly visions, neatly inverting traditional ghost story values. Initially it is the ghost who is scared of the living, hiding behind a wall to avoid detection. Taking in influences from M.R James and Edgar Allan Poe and building to an incredibly poetic and affecting Lord Of The Flies-esque finale, The Devil’s Backbone is a haunting, chilling, unforgettable film.
Del Toro followed The Devil’s Backbone with two more Hollywood studio productions, again exploring vampire myth with Blade II and comic book film Hellboy. His unquestionable masterpiece came after these modest successes when he made Pan’s Labyrinth.
By Mark Elms