The most personal film by Guillermo del Toro is also among his most frightening and emotionally layered. Set during the final week of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone tells the tale of a ten-year-old boy who, after his freedom-fighting father is killed, is sent to a haunted rural orphanage full of terrible secrets. Del Toro effectively combines gothic ghost story, murder mystery, and historical melodrama in a stylish concoction that reminds us—as would his later Pan’s Labyrinth—that the scariest monsters are often the human ones.
In Guillermo del Toro's 'The Devil's Backbone,' a series of unfortunate events take shape inside a small orphanage for boys, exposing them to the cruel realities of the world and forcing them into adulthood far sooner than they're prepared for. Already having to deal with issues of abandonment, the boys are also burdened with the knowledge of the brutality some people are capable of inflicting upon others. This seems particularly true of Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), a kid expressing his anger and frustration with the world in his bullying of others, namely the new kid Carlos (Fernando Tielve). Written by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David Muñoz, the plot is essentially a tale of the corruption of innocence, of a harsh world infecting the purity of a child, turning him into an uncaring cynic.
At first, it doesn't seem like Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the groundskeeper, is much more than the story's antagonist, your standard villain whose devious scheming pushes the narrative forward. When talking to a crooked-looking pair of day laborers, Jacinto reveals his plans of robbing the school of a small cache of gold bricks, making him appear the wicked evildoer indeed. However, his role is quite significant when he later divulges to the pretty Conchita (Irene Visedo) his hatred for the orphanage because it's where he grew up. His dreams, as a little boy, of someday being a successful man became one of having enough wealth to buy the property in order to tear it down. All of this is disclosed fairly early into the film, and it's certainly very telling.
Jacinto is an unpleasant individual. A brutish and callous bully the boys rightfully fear, the man is full of unresolved anger and resentment, which he lets out in a sadistically malicious attitude towards the kids. It won't be until the third act that we learn a bit more about Jacinto — a very brief moment of humanity when he discovers a box of childhood pictures, like souvenirs of a period of his own lost innocence. It's in light of this we too discover a thoughtful, penetrating design to del Toro's ghostly tale. In effect, Jacinto is one of Carlos and Jaime's possible futures since the upbringing of three appear very similar. This takes on greater significance when the two boys work together in a battle against those odds, a bold rejection to the world's greed and cruelty not destroying their spirits.
Del Toro sets this beautiful but subtly complex plot against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in its final year when sadly, the fascist right-wing dictator Francisco Franco was destined to rule for the next four decades. The idea of innocence lost suddenly expands into other facets of the film, as the inhabitants of this nearly-abandoned orphanage are made to battle amongst themselves. While the relatively young Jacinto is driven by greed and wealth, the older couple operating the school tries to remain vigilant to their ideals and the pursuit of caring for these unfortunate children. Carmen (Marisa Paredes) is the main administrator worn thin by the endless struggle to keep the orphanage functioning, but the Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) persists as the hopeful idealist wanting to set the boys on their proper path into adulthood.
And lest I forget to mention it, mainly because I'm carried away by the plot's more profound and astute implications, 'The Devil's Backbone' is on its surface an excellent ghost story surrounding the mysterious death of one orphan boy named Santi (Junio Valverde). It's a creepily atmospheric tale told in the traditional style of the Gothic horror, a literary off-shoot of the Romantic genre where audiences take enjoyment in being immersed in dread and terror over cheap, sudden jump scares. Del Toro delights in the visually dramatic and disturbing environments, an approach that harkens back to classic Hammer Films, Jack Clayton's 'The Innocents' and Lewis Allen's 'The Uninvited.' The final reveal comes as little surprise, but that's beside the point in this brilliant supernatural film that expresses a far deeper concern and is quickly growing as a favorite horror classic.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'The Devil's Backbone' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #666) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a foldout pamphlet with an insightful essay entitled "The Past is never dead" by author and film critic Mark Kermode. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
According to the accompanying booklet, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was created from a 2k resolution digital scan of the original 35mm camera negative, under the supervision of Guillermo del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. The end result is a splendid high-def presentation that's faithful to the stylistic intentions of the filmmakers, showing a wonderful color palette of vibrant greens, steely blues and pulsating reds. Secondary hues are also accurately rendered with plenty of warmth and life behind them. Contrast is spot-on with clean, crisp whites, especially in the ghostly face of Santi. Although black levels are rich and opulent for a majority of the film's runtime, shadows tend to overwhelm and obscure minor background info in several scenes.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the image is awash in a very fine layer of natural grain, giving it a beautiful film-like appeal. Visibility in the far distance is remarkable and at times, breathtaking, as we clearly make out the ridges of mountain peaks hundreds of miles away. Puffy clouds look like giant cotton balls floating in the sky while on the ground, individual pebbles and tiny clumps of dirt are clearly distinct. The smallest crack and imperfection on the walls of the orphanage are plainly visible, and facial complexions are highly revealing and lifelike, exposing every pore, wrinkle and cut on the faces of the cast. Altogether, 'The Devil's Backbone' arrives to Blu-ray with a noteworthy and handsome high-def transfer fans are sure to love.
The booklet also mentions that the surround design for the horror film was remastered from the original 35mm 6-channel magnetic track. And like the video, the results are terrific and effectively creepy. The original design is not the sort to immerse listeners with a spine-chilling environment, but a very subtle arrangement of haunting, evocative sounds heard in the distance, generating an ominous and uncanny atmosphere. So, it goes without saying that discreet ambient effects are employed on several occasions, like the soft, delicate sighs of Santi or the pitter-patter of little feet running across the back of the room. The experience is quite convincing and splendidly satisfying.
The rest of the lossless mix is a front-heavy presentation with good, clear vocals in the center. There are a couple times when conversations seemed a bit mumbled and unintelligible, which may or may not be a fault of the source, but thankfully, those moments were far and few in between. Channel separation is very well-balanced with excellent, fluid movement across the entire screen, creating a broad and welcoming soundfield. The few action sequences and the music score exhibit precise, well-defined dynamics and acoustical details with clean distinction in the upper ranges. Low bass is surprisingly deep and palpable, adding to the film's eerie feeling and making this high-rez track a marvelous listen.
In 2001, Guillermo del Toro made a big splash with 'The Devil's Backbone,' a spooky and equally melancholic ghost story set inside a boy's orphanage during the last year of the Spanish Civil War. While on its surface audiences can enjoy the eerie visuals and creepy gothic atmosphere, the subplot and political undertones offer a deeper appreciation to this brilliant, subtly complex production. The Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection arrives with a splendid high-def transfer and an excellent audio presentation. With a wealth of interesting supplements to enjoy, the overall package makes for a great release fans will surely love to own. Recommended.