Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, The Devil's Backbone wraps horror together with drama, fantasy, crime, and mystery in an incredible period piece about the end of a bloody civil war in 1939 Spain.
The movie opens with ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of a fallen Republican war hero, left by his tutor at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere. The orphanage is run by kindhearted professor Casares and headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes). Carlos deals with, and triumphs over, the orphanages bullies but isn't yet all that comfortable. He is haunted by the presence of the ghost of a former occupant of the orphanage named Santi, who badgers him gloomily with a whisper of, "Many of you will die." With an undetonated bomb in the middle of the orphanage and a powderkeg of a personality in the nasty caretaker, Jacinto, ready to explode, there is constant tension for Carlos and the other boys.
The story itself is one of ambiguity. What is a ghost? What is death? Can these things be quantified in a tangible way? The film doesn't explain or spoonfeed the viewer so much as it brings up the debate; it all depends on how you want to interpret or question your beliefs. Excellent acting by the entire cast anchors the story, where something that could be labeled "art house" might get lost in making its point, leaving out the entertainment aesthetic. But The Devil's Backbone never goes overboard with the melodrama, sentimentality, or gore. Despite its "horror" tag, it's not really a scary movie. It is a solid mix of haunting story, good acting, good direction, and beautiful, lush cinematography (the landscapes, though desolate, are really easy on the eye).
The DVD extras include audio commentary by Toro, a making-of documentary, director's thumbnail sketches, notes from Toro's notebook, and art galleries, making The Devil's Backbone special edition a great DVD to have as a part of your collection.
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