"What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over?" Guillermo Del Toro's "The Devil's Backbone" (El espinazo del diablo, 2001) starts with these lines and so we can take a guess that this isn't a typical ghost story. It is rather a sophisticated war commentary, which is concerned mainly with the massacre of the innocent. Del Toro, famous for his off-beat allegories conjures up the most emotionally devastating situation and often tells it through the point of view of the children. "Devil's Backbone" -- confined to a single, crumbling location -- not only tries to provoke your screams, but also earns your tears.
Bomber air-crafts hover above in the skies and drop a bomb in an isolated Spanish orphanage. The bomb doesn't explode, but we see a boy bleeding to death in a mysterious way. Sometime later, at the brink of Spanish civil war (1936-39), a young boy Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the facility with his father's friend. The unexploded shell is partly buried in the central courtyard. Carlos -- the son of a republican -- is unfortunately abandoned in that orphanage. In fact, the facility was really boarding school, which turned to an orphanage for the sons of dead republicans. So, republicans in the school and a bomb dropped by fascists are at the center of it. It's a metaphor of what comes next.
The facility is run by acerbated one-legged widow, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) -- wife of a leftist poet. Casares (Federico Luppi) is the orphanage's aged doctor and professor. Carmen and Casares have long suffered unrequited love for each other. Carmen has stashed away republican money in the form of gold ingots, in a locker. The servant staff of orphanage includes the beautiful and bland teacher Conchita (Irene Visedo) and a menacing former student turned janitor, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega).
Carlos is first bullied by Jaime (Inigo Garces) and his mates, but later earns respect from all his classmates. He is assigned to bed 12 -- bed of the missing student, Santi (Junio Valverde). Carlos soon glimpses at something that looks like a ghost and mildly suffers from Jacinto's villainy. Through the boys, Carlos learns that the ghost is rumored to be the missing student. Carlos pursues the mystery behind Santi, while the ghost communicates to deliver a warning.
The suspense in the movie is not incited through the storyline, but more due to the brooding atmosphere. Horror fans will be grossly disappointed as Del Toro doesn't go for cheap and quick scares. He unfolds the story like a Edgar Allan Poe's story with a heavy set of symbolism. As I said, the unexploded bomb represents a metaphor, whereas the whole characters in the orphanage reflect the microcosm of the war itself. Among the elders, there are republicans and fascists, who stand up for their beliefs. In the middle, there are innocent children, caught like an insect in a spider's web. Even, if you don't get or like the symbolism, there's lot of other things to ponder over.
Del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro enriches the movie by infusing a contrast between the dank, greenish light that sleeps over the orphanage by night and the parched orange glow of the daytime. As a director, Del Toro instigates his allegorical intentions along with various themes. Greed, class hatred and sexual frustration rise up along with the metaphors and subtexts. In the climax, the allegory is openly observable as the boys must band together against their oppressor. Del Toro says that the deadly apparitions are not 'ghosts', but the people stuck in the past and the ones devouring the present. The sweet-faced Tielve as Carlos features a good range of emotions. The performances by all the other kids are top-notch. Noriega as evil janitor tries hard to inspire fear in the kids, but often the sense of danger is not felt by the viewer. Marisa parades ("All About My Mother") and Luppi ("Cronos") are believably human as their characters reveal themselves.
"The Devil's Backbone" (2001) is both a political allegory and art-house horror movie. As with excellent world movies, you might quickly forget that you are reading subtitles and get swept up in the story. It is highly predictable but there are enough characters and atmosphere to make it a poetic film.
The Devil's Backbone -- IMDb