Time: 106 Minutes
Age Rating: contains violence & offensive language
Fernando Tielve as Carlos
Íñigo Garcés as Jaime
Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto
Marisa Paredes as Carmen
Federico Luppi as Dr. Casares
Director: Guillermo del Toro
After losing his father, 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at the Santa Lucia School, which shelters orphans of the Republican militia and politicians, and is taken in by the steely headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), and the kindly professor, Casares (Federico Luppi). Soon after his arrival, Carlos has a run-in with the violent caretaker, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Gradually, Carlos uncovers the secrets of the school, including the youthful ghost that wanders the grounds.
I was interested in The Devil’s Backbone simply because Guillermo Del Toro was directing it, outside of that I really didn’t know what to expect from the movie aside from it being a horror movie. It turned out to be a great and surprising ghost story, and actually one of Del Toro’s best movies.
The Devil’s Backbone does fall under being a horror movie, however I’d say that it’s more of a ghost story, it was more unsettling than actually scary. The backdrop and setting are great, with the story being set at an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. This helped in creating a creeping and menacing atmosphere. There’s a lot of thematic elements at play here too with the effect of war. It’s a very dark and haunting story, and the climax is particularly brutal. It is similar in tone to Del Toro’s later films like Pan’s Labyrinth, and like those movies, the real monsters aren’t ghosts or supernatural elements, but humans. In fact, this is much less fantastical and more grounded than Pan’s Labyrinth, the characters feel very much human. The pacing was good and really keeps you invested in what was happening while not feeling too rushed, the runtime at about an hour and 50 minutes was just right for the movie overall. The story itself while arguably predictable (especially as the movie moves along), is interesting, well written, and surprisingly moving. There’s a lot happening in this movie despite the initial simple premise, with swirling plotlines and multiple themes, and Del Toro balances it out. It’s definitely one of his most intelligently written films.
The acting is great from everyone. The child actors do well on their parts, especially the leads in Fernando Tielve and Inigo Garces, and their dynamic was great and very believable. The adult cast including Federico Luppi, Eduardo Noriega and Marisa Paredes are also very good in their roles, the children stand out the most but the adults aren’t far behind.
This is Guillermo del Toro’s third movie and he’s definitely progressed as a filmmaker when considering his past movies with Cronos and Mimic, while those were quite good, The Devil’s Backbone is very much a step up. Although it’s at a lower budget (at around US $6.5 million), it’s fantastic on a technical level. The cinematography is great, beautiful and it encapsulates the whole movie with a ghostly vibe, which is helped particularly by the camerawork, lighting and colour tones. The aesthetic is definitely gothic, and that definitely fit the tone of the story perfectly. The setting at the orphanage is well captured here, with a lot of attention to detail particularly with the production design. The horror is subtle, and you don’t get too many scares (again more of a ghost story than a horror film), and you really feel the sense of isolation throughout the movie. The score from Javier Navarrete added a lot to the movie too.
The Devil’s Backbone is a greatly directed, written and acted movie, a grounded and haunting ghost story. It is on the higher end of Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography yet has been somewhat overlooked, definitely worth watching.