For years, I’ve been Guillermo del Toro’s groupie. If his name is attached to a project in any capacity, I will watch it. The title doesn’t matter. Director, producer, gaffer, assistant to Dave Foley...if del Toro sneezed within 75 miles of a movie set, I will watch that movie. It goes without saying that I love The Devil’s Backbone. The fact that a filmmaker would fill the gaps between major studio releases by lensing smaller, more intimate films speaks volumes about his passion for the craft. It’s a passion that pours from every frame. Backbone may not have been so effectual had it been helmed by someone else.
Carlos is an orphan. He doesn’t know that he is an orphan. He assumes that his father will return any day from fighting in the Spanish Civil War. His “tutor” drops him off at a tumbledown boarding school where a defused bomb sits aslant in front of the entrance. During his stay, Carlos meets a bully, an abusive caretaker, and a waterlogged ghost. This isn’t really a horror film. Del Toro uses supernatural transgressions as the backdrop for a heartrending drama. There are so many themes at play, that I couldn’t possibly dissect them all. Well, I suppose I could, but this isn’t a book report.
The child actors are profoundly expressive. Fernando Tievle runs the emotional gauntlet as Carlos. I thought that I would grow weary of his doe-eyed innocence, but I actually liked him. Imagine that. Eduardo Noriega is commanding as Jacinto, a covetous prick who acts as the film’s protagonist. Inigo Garces gives a well-rounded performance Jaime, the aforementioned bully. The key word here is “well-rounded.” There are no one-dimensional characters. Everyone is fleshed out, and the script broaches a blurry distinction between “good” and “evil.” The heroes are flawed and the villains are empathetic.
Del Toro’s ability to achieve realism with the realm of paranormal activity is peerless. I don’t know how he does it, but I don’t need to know how he does it. If there is one aspect of this phantasmal period piece that rubbed me the wrong way, it would have to be the egregious absence of legitimate scares. Again, Backbone is not a horror film, but I felt that the horror quotient was downplayed a little too much. That’s just me. That isn’t to say that we don’t get a sobering dose of violence. The gore (I hate to even call it that) is visceral and unflinching. I’m giving extra credit for the gutsy inclusion of dead children. Dead children are awesome!
Do I need to mention that the visuals are superb? Probably not, but I will anyway. I’m a sucker for eye candy, with or without substance. Del Toro knows how to make 35mm film look delicious. The imagery is subaqeuous and surreal. Every scene is enswathed in buttery amber filters that slide across the screen like a deep pigment chicken broth. Am I making any sense? I hope so because you need to see The Devil’s Backbone. It’s damn near perfect. I would be more open to giving it a perfect rating if it held up after repeated viewings, but I’ve only seen it twice. Plus, I’m stingy.
I pray to God and Satan that Guillermo del Toro doesn’t spend an obscene amount of time fucking around with hobbits. His “Spanish Civil War” trilogy may go down as one of the most aesthetically pleasing series of films in history, assuming that the third entry is just as delectable as its forerunners. As a selfish horror goon, I’m hoping that the series is completed in due course. If for some blasphemous reason, you still haven’t seen The Devil’s Backbone, stop reading this review and redeem yourself in the eyes of Santi.