At the onset, we hear a man’s voice postulating, poetically, about the things that might produce a ghost. We see a bomb bay open, a single large bomb drop into the clouds. We see a boy, perhaps fourteen, leaning over another, perhaps twelve, in what might be a basement or a courtyard. The younger boy has a massive head wound and is dying. We see the bomb, canted, embedded in a courtyard—a dud, waiting to explode at a moment’s notice.
So begins Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s taut horror story, “The Devil’s Backbone,” released in 2001 on a budget of $4.5 million dollars. Unlike 2004’s “Hellboy,” whose budget was $66 million, or 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” with a $19 million dollar budget, “Backbone” is forced to work its magic without extensive special effects. IE, it relies on the writing, the acting, the cinematography, the costumes, et cetera, and is a better film for it.
The term “the devil’s backbone” is a double entendre, referring to both the local catch phrase for a freakish spinal disfiguration (on display as a stillborn child preserved in a large jar of spiced rum—the rum sold to suspicious local villagers as a cure for everything from TB to impotence,) as well as the massive character flaw of the villain, a too handsome school teacher willing to do anything from bedding the matron he despises to slaughtering an entire orphanage for the gold purportedly stored in its hidden safe.
The story takes place in 1939, near the end of the Spanish Civil War, when the leftist factions are crumbling against the superior firepower of the loyalist right wing army. Like many of the best foreign films and all good horror films, it is ripe with metaphor. A young boy, Carlos, is left at an orphanage by his “tutor,” a leftist about to return to the front. Carlos is unaware that his father has died in battle, unaware that the dangers within the orphanage compound may even exceed the dangers on the battlefield without. The orphanage is run by a stern matron with a prosthetic right leg, and a poetry spouting doctor who has been in love with her for decades. There is also a young woman and a young man who teach there, and another woman who does the cooking and cleaning. Apart from the two dubious handymen who first appear briefly to construct a chicken coop, the rest of the cast is comprised of about twenty young boys, most of them under twelve.
What at first appears to be a place of refuge from the war in spite of the shortages of food and other amenities is soon revealed to be anything but. From the supposedly disarmed bomb partially embedded in the courtyard and reverently deified by the boys, to the pale ghost of Santi—the murder victim from the opening—oozing red protoplasm from his head wound while performing poltergeist trickery and appearing to Carlos, the isolated orphanage is a hotbed of various assorted horrors behind its high walls.
The boys are forced to mature by the escalating dangers around them; the living are forced to come to terms with the dead as well as their own fears as the madman in their midst reveals himself by degrees.
The film’s colors remind one of a Salvador Dali painting—lots of yellows, browns, whites; the interiors are filled with long dormitories, hallways, sinister shadows, doors, and stairways. The adults are too absorbed with their own pressing needs of survival, love and lust to fully appreciate the complexities of the boys’ testosterone based social structure. The audience is left to wonder if the oldest boy is, in fact, a murderer, or just the bully of the bunch; and, like “Lord of the Flies,” exactly how much of what the boys are about parallels the adult’s war, briefly glimpsed in a local village where a loyalist officer executes six leftists including Carlos’ former tutor.
As a horror story “The Devil’s Backbone” is riveting. As a film, it is a masterpiece.
In Spanish with subtitles. Available in DVD.