This was the last movie I watched for my Horrorfest, and I choose wisely. The Devil’s Backbone is a haunting, tragic and bittersweet picture set amongst the horrors and violence of the Spanish Civil War. As I viewed this movie I was reminded that some monsters are very human, which I think runs through a lot of Guillermo del Toro’s work. The man is a master craftsman of dreams and nightmares, fully unafraid to wield magical realism in his cinema. It’s a shame it took the Academy so long to praise his efforts.
Fernando Tielve takes the main character’s role of Carlos and fully runs with it all the way. He is left to survive in an all boys orphanage, bullied at first yet earning the respect of the kids there. Particularly Íñigo Garcés’ Jaime, who he forms a bond with and who is hiding a secret. A ghost is rumored to lurk on the grounds, all while an unexploded bomb sits quietly in the middle of the building. So many metaphors, only so much screen time.
The adults running the place range from saintly, nice, haunted, and wicked. You have Marisa Paredes’ Carmen who runs the place and deals with both scars hidden and obvious. Federico Luppi as Dr. Casares, who cares deeply for both Carman and the boys, yet is older and thus weaker as a result. Irene Visedo plays Conchita, who loves Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) yet fails to realize he is not a good person until it’s too late. It is the adults who set in motion perilous events that threaten everyone in the orphanage, not the boys who only try to survive.
The ghost scenes in this movie are so effective because they lure you in and then pop up right in your face. There is a keyhole scene that rivals Black Christmas’ one in terms of supreme creep level, and the finale is very suspenseful. I’ll be dwelling on this one a while, and it’s easily one of del Toro’s best movies. It also clearly inspired other later movies, and is a welcome addition to my Criterion collection of Blu-ray’s.