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The Devil's Backbone

  the devil's backbone
Federico Luppi experiences a contemplative, but well lit, moment.

© 2002, Sony Pictures Classics
All Rights Reserved

Is it a horror movie, a coming of age tale set in an impoverished Spanish orphanage, or an early 20th century-era war movie? These questions come to mind while viewing "The Devil's Backbone" (IMDb listing), an unpredictable and unique little film by director Guillermo del Toro ("Cronos," "Mimic," and the upcoming "Blade 2"). Once again del Toro delves into the world of horror and the supernatural, this time taking his dark storytelling style back to late 1930's Spain.

"The Devil's Backbone" takes place in a remote part of Spain towards the end of the Spanish Civil War. Carmen (Marisa Paredes), a Pro-Republican runs a small orphanage filled with young boys, most of whom lost their parents during the war. With the help of Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), a kind-hearted old professor, servant girl Conchita (Irene Vesedo), and orphanage alumnus Jacinto, (Eduardo Noriega) the remaining personnel look after the children during this time of bloodshed and social upheaval.

Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a recently orphaned newcomer, is dropped off at the orphanage by his father's friend. Immediately upon arrival, he falls prey to the cruelty of a band of hoodlum boys, led by derelict Jaime (Inigo Garces). As Carlos adjusts to his surroundings, he learns of the legend of the 'whisperer', the spirit of an orphan named Santi (Junio Valverde) who died in the orphanage not too long ago.

Amidst this strange atmosphere of the supernatural and warfare, there is internal emotional strife breeding amongst the adults. It is painfully apparent in the old professor's eyes that he has an affection that surpasses friendly feelings for Carmen. She appreciates his kindness, yet succumbs to the advances of Jacinto, a bitter, brooding opportunist who believes that the easy way out of his poverty is to acquire the gold bars hidden in the kitchen safe.

As the various conflicts steadily reach crisis levels, the ghost of Santi attempts to contact the reluctant and fearful Carlos. Santi, the sad, rotting remnant of a boy, seeks nothing more than revenge against his murderer.

"The Devil's Backbone" is yet another project in which del Toro weaves a story of people being consumed by their inherent greed and vanity, within the framework of a horror film. The darkly-lit hallways and subtle, slow progression of the film builds effective suspense. The special effects used to render Santi the ghost are eerily gruesome. With his deathly grey skin and cracked, bloody skull, Santi is the embodiment of tragedy and despair.

Although it moves a little slowly, the "The Devil's Backbone" contains an eclectic mixture of movie genres and conflicts which tend to keep things interesting. When greed takes precedence over compassion and humanity, tragedy follows. For the remaining orphans, their survival depends upon their resolve to stick together and fight against great peril. As the boys face their greatest challenge, the ghost of Santi lurks in the shadows, awaiting his final justice.

Filmfodder Grade: B+

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