The Devil’s Backbone / El Espinazo del Diablo (2001, Guillermo del Toro)
*this reviewer will contain spoilers for crucial plot points. Without them I fear my criticisms would come across as empty.
It is a loathsome situation when, as a movie watcher, expectations come back to haunt oneself. The topic has been brought more than once here at Between the Seats, and therefore little time shall be spared for it again in this introduction, but suffice to say that the author does his very best to let movies envelope him and shun expectations aside. The del Toro Time marathon has thus far been a resounding success in terms of quality films to dissect, especially the director’s two Spanish language efforts, El Laberinto del Fauno and Cronos (which has some English but is predominantly in Spanish). Finalizing the marathon with one of the director’s lesser known films to mainstream audiences but one which a) garnered critical praise upon its release in 2001, b)was produced by none other than Pedro Almodovar and c) is a Spanish language film, seemed like a great idea. As I write this review, a slight ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ feeling is creeping up. The film would have been a far better fit near the beginning of the marathon.
Unbeknownst to me prior to finally seeing the film, the story is set during the Spanish civil war, exactly as El Laberinto del Fauno was. The reason for del Toro’s interest in this historical conflict is unknown to me, but it makes for compelling drama. The movie centers on an orphanage of sorts in the middle of a desert. It is an old building with classrooms, a kitchen, restrooms and an open court existing within the parameters of the building’s walls. Amazingly enough, a huge defused bomb stands firmly in the middle of said court. For all intents and purposes, the area serves as a salvation for young boys who have lost their parents in the Spanish Civil War. Carlos (Fernando Tielve) has just arrived, left behind by his ‘tutor’, and his séjour gets off to a rough start with the local tough kid Jaime (Íñigo Garcés). There is also the matter of Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a brute of a man who serves as a janitor. The establishment is primarily run by leftists Dr. Cesares (Federico Luppi) and the woman he not so secretly loves, Carmen (Marisa Paredes). Things only get worse one night when Carlos witnesses the presence of a ghost in the form of a child. As Franco’s approaching army beckons, the mystery of the boy ghost thickens.
Looking back at the order in which the Guillermo del Toro films were viewed, it seems greater effort should have been put into seeing each one in chronological, with the lone exception being Pan’s Labyrinth, which could have been saved for last. With the latter, one can feel that every theme and idea del Toro worked on throughout his scripts and career culminated in the bravura filmmaking on display with that effort. The Devil’s Backbone feels like minor del Toro. Really, really minor del Toro. I am aware that this movie has its share of die hard fans and my last wish is to intentionally antagonize them, but The Devil’s Backbone left me wanting for so much more. Reviews and listed rankings were avoided until after the film, so imagine my surprise upon learning that The Devil’s Backbone has earned 7.6 at IMDB with over 18,000 votes, a 91% at Rotten Tomatoes as well as being in the top ten scariest movies of all time at the same website and found a place on Bravo’s scariest movie moments list. Even the comments posted by reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes, which I visit infrequently mind you, featured praise along the lines of ‘saddest horror movie ever’ and ‘A treasure of artistic elements and genres synthesized together in a flawless cohesion of cinematic and visual poetry’ Was I comatose or something while watching this movie? I do not recall drinking beforehand, and it seems to me I felt fine that day. Perhaps I am misremembering?...
Specifically, three principal elements irked me, each one stemming from the little ghost. However they are all equally important ones, so the fact that they let me down meant the film as a whole was brought down with them. Firstly, design notwithstanding, the little boy ghost was boring as heck. His appearances and behaviour were as predictable as ever. The movie even features tired scenes of the ghost’s shadow slowly approaching from behind when the protagonist looks back upon fleeing and some cliched ‘boo!’ moments when the ghost suddenly appears at times when I presume the viewer is supposed to least expect it although that never ends up being the case. There was not a single moment involving the ghost which sparked my imagination or caused any sense of dread, fear, surprise, etc. Actually, one thing did strike me, that being the creature’s appearance. Since the boy whose ghost haunts the orphanage died after getting his skull cracked and subsequently dropped into a water reservoir, the ghost itself has a cloudy trail of blood which oozes from his head, since that is what blood looks like when it is in water. That, admittedly, was rather neat and was a nice attention to detail, but little else aroused excitement. If one looks closely, one can see the crack in the skull as well.
Secondly, the overall plot thread through which the ghost tries to get Carlos’ attention had the reviewer scratching his head a few times. If by the end of the movie the ghost wanted avenge his death at the hands of Jacinto, why did he not just say so at first? Why deal with that after the cryptic ‘many people will die’ message? In fact, what was the purpose in making the ‘many people will die’ message cryptic anyhow? Jacinto killed you (the ghost), you want revenge, and you can sense that in the near future Jacinto will commit a far worse act that shall lead to the deaths of many. Kill him now! End of story! Whatever influence the encounters between Carlos and the ghost have on the overall plot therefore lack the emotional and thematic depth one would hope for. To put it differently, it feels as if the script was dishonestly dictating what can and when it can happen.
The third and final element concerns which character the ghost chooses to call out for help from. Why is he even haunting Carlos at all? Haunt Jaime who was actually your friend. Now, it is true that the film ‘hints’ at the notion that Jaime knows the ghost is his deceased playmate, but it refuses to make it explicit, so the viewer may be left wondering (or just me since apparently I am the only person who did not give this movie a score of 95%) why is it that Jaime is not the one the ghost beckons for assistance in accomplishing revenge. Is Jaime really refusing to believe the ghost is the re-appearance of his dead friend? What exactly compels the ghost to stalk Carlos rather than his friend? I have heard that in the audio commentary available in the DVD del Toro explains how Carlos represents a force of innocence. So what? He serves as a blank slate who arrives at the orphanage where a rich history of events has already taken place and with the character arcs already set up for potential brilliance. There is no true connection between Carlos and the ghost. Think of The Devil’s Backbone had it been told from Jaime’s point of view. Once a happy young lad, his innocence was laid to waste upon witnessing the brutal death of his friend at the hands of someone next to whom he must live every single day. He now acts as the bully as a means of expressing his anger and sadness. His former friend returns as a spirit to ask for help in avenging his death. By killing Jacinto, Jaime finds a degree of solace in knowing that his friend can now rest in peace and that the deaths of other children have been avoided. That is a movie I would like to see.
Federico Luppi gives a very nice performance as doctor Cesares, as does Marisa Paredes. The orphanage setting is interesting and showcases some impressive set design, and, as mentioned earlier, the ghost does look pretty snazzy. Those are unfortunately the only positives I can take away from The Devil’s Backbone. The lazy script detracts from virtually everything else. There is tremendous quality showcased in the majority of del Toro’s other feature length films, so honestly, I can only get so angry. Nonetheless, The Devil’s Backbone is a movie that in all likelihood I shall forget rather quickly.