"The Devil's Backbone" (IMDb listing) is the latest enterprise in moody horror from Guillermo del Toro, acclaimed director of "Cronos" and the not-so-acclaimed "Mimic." A director with an affinity for textures and the macabre, del Toro's higher aspirations for his new film get the better of him this time out.
It is the last days of the Spanish Civil War, and Carlos (Fernando Tielve) has been left at the forsaken San Lucia school for boys, where there is no one left to care for him. A stranger in an even stranger place, Carlos tries to make friends with the other boys, but instead finds an enemy in Jamie (Inigo Garces), another orphan in the school. Haunted by his abandonment, a ruthless groundskeeper (Eduardo Noriega), and a gigantic undetonated bomb that sits silently in the school yard, Carlos literally becomes haunted when the ghostly apparition of a young murdered boy begins to come to him for help with revenge.
"The Devil's Backbone" is a frustrating moviegoing experience. Mixing both political allegory and modern suspense (along the lines of Alejandro Amenabar's "The Others"), "Backbone" plays out like a compact disc player set on random. One minute we're biting our nails with anticipation for the next boogeyman to jump out of the shadows, and the next we're listening to characters discuss the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. It's admirable for del Toro to try to streamline the two sides into a fully realized film, as narrative layers of this size would benefit any other picture of this genre. Nevertheless, the final result is a jumbled, uneven film that always seems to come to a complete stop just when it's about to get going.
What del Toro excels at is mood. All of his films have this murky, sludgy beauty to them that few directors can pull off. A student of horror/fantasy films, del Toro takes the genre very seriously, and it shows with every loving frame. Shot by Guillermo Navarro ("From Dusk Till Dawn," "Desperado"), "Backbone" is a delicious picture of hell, shot through the hazy amber glow of a Spanish desert. One of the few suspense pictures to take a great deal of time in raw daylight, "Backbone" impresses with its technical achievements. del Toro seems to control mood with an ease that makes me wish I liked this film, or at least could've appreciated the higher aspirations for this material that del Toro has.
In the lead role of Carlos, young actor Fernando Tielve carries the picture like an 80-film veteran. With his mournful eyes and ability to portray fear without resorting to actor tricks, Tielve keeps "Devil's Backbone" surging ahead with his great performance. Acting alongside such greats as Marisa Paredes ("All About My Mother") and Federico Luppi ("Men With Guns"), Tielve holds his own, a remarkable achievement for an actor his age. I look forward to seeing more work from this exceptional young performer.
It was hard to come out of "The Devil's Backbone" feeling anything but disappointed. del Toro showcases with each of his films just how talented a director he is, yet his films all fall apart eventually, with "Backbone" showing too many wonderful elements before it crumbles under its own weight. Once del Toro can find that glue that will hold his dramatic layers together, he will be a filmmaker with a wealth of classics inside him just bursting to hit the screen.
Filmfodder Grade: C