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With: Federico Luppi, Marisa Paredes, Fernando Tielve, Inigo Gerces, Eduardo Noriega, Irene Visedo
Written by: Guillermo Del Toro, David Mu–oz, Antonio Trashorras
Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and some sexuality
Language: Spanish with English subtitles
Running Time: 108
Date: 04/20/2001
IMDB

The Devil's Backbone (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bad to the 'Bone'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

You wouldn't think that a wide-open adobe school out in the middle of the Spanish desert would be an ideal place to set a horror film. But writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Cronos and Mimic) finds plenty of dark places and secrets there to provide a more than chilling picture with The Devil's Backbone, opening today in Bay Area theaters.

During the final days of the Spanish Civil War, 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at the Santa Lucia School with his grown-up tutor, unaware of why he's there. He becomes fascinated by an undetonated bomb sticking out of the ground in the middle of the school's square. Before too long, Carlos finds that he's the school's latest addition, and that his tutor has driven away down the long, dusty road (a day and a night by foot to the next town).

It turns out this school is for orphan boys, and Carlos soon clashes with the older and stronger Jaime (Inigo Gerces), the leader of the orphans. Carlos eventually meets the rest of the cast of characters, headed by Professor Casares (Federico Luppi), who keeps twisted dead fetuses in jars and sells the alcohol they float in to the clueless locals (a lovely Cronenbergian touch).

Carlos' wife Carmen (Marisa Paredes) is the school's headmistress, who carries a cane -- her personality is as cold and hard as her artificial leg. A caretaker named Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) was once an orphan himself. He lives at the school with his young, pretty fiancée Conchita (Irene Visedo), the school's cook.

Carlos also learns about a student named Santi (Junio Valverde), who mysteriously disappeared the same night the bomb dropped in the square. No one wants to talk about him, but Carlos is sure he hears his name whispered from among the shadows at night. Especially since he's been assigned the only empty bed in the place -- Santi's former bed.

Del Toro beautifully plays with this material, weaving deceitful characters and awkward situations together, and bathing the whole thing in an amber glow -- until he can go no further and gives away the whole shebang: the murder, where it occurred, who knew about it and why. From there the film turns into a simple Rambo revenge tale, with a distinct "Lord of the Flies" flavor.

I liked the ghostly, golden tone of the first part better than the second part, but I was so involved by the time the second part came around, I didn't mind. Adding to the basic ghost story, del Toro decorates the film with subtle political overtones that creep around the edges with as much grace as the ghosts themselves.

Each of the characters is meant to represent some sort of faction of the Spanish Civil War. Young Jacinto is a fascist, and the impotent Casares and crippled Carmen are the crumbling Spanish aristocracy. Fortunately, the movie's theme -- that a ghost is an emotion or a terrible moment doomed to repeat itself over and over -- fits both sides of the movie quite well. Del Toro portrays war as just another aspect of horror without tipping his hand to show that he is doing so.

Most of all, The Devil's Backbone is an effective chiller that likes to explore dark rooms and listen to strange, whispered noises in the dark. It stands alongside this year's The Others as a coolly accomplished ghost story that doesn't have to resort to screaming teens.

The Criterion Collection has happily released a 2013 Blu-ray edition, and I couldn't be more pleased. The colors are strong and the picture is beautifully defined. Extras include a Del Toro commentary track (recorded in 2004), a short video introduction by Del Toro, interviews with Del Toro, a making-of documentary, deleted scenes, a "director's notebook," an interview with scholar Sebastiaan Faber about the film's depiction of the Spanish Civil War, a featurette comparing Del Toro's thumbnail sketches and Carlos Giménez's storyboards with the final film, an on-screen presentation of said thumbnail sketches, and a trailer. Del Toro supervised the new subtitle translation, and critic Mark Kermode provides the liner notes essay.

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