on 24 June 2002
A beautifully shot film contrasting the bright white landscapes surrounding the orphanage with the foreboding almost gothic corridors and rooms inside. Superbly acted by both adults AND children alike (Del Torro obviously knows how to select his actors and get their best performances) and very well produced. If you know anyone adverse to watching subtitled/foreign films then this is the one that will break them because the story and subject matter simply overcome the language barrier. A truely gripping piece of cinema that begins with one simple(?!) question "What is a ghost?..." By the end of this film you will be asking yourself that same question over and over.
on 27 May 2007
Sometimes it is a genuine joy to see a good old fashioned genre done so well that it takes your breath away, and so I am proud to present for your consideration The Devils Backbone, as effective and full blooded a ghost story as you are ever likely to see.
Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, the mastermind behind such fantastic pieces of cinema as Cronos and Pans Labyrinth, as well as the slightly disappointing super-hero movies Blade 2 and Hellboy (hey, even the best of us can make a mistake), the film centres around Carlos (Fernando Tielve). The year is 1939 and the Spanish Civil War is coming to its bloody end. Carlos is brought to an isolated orphanage by his tutor and guardian where he is left, unaware that his father, a Republican, has been slain in the war. Carlos accepts his fate, but life is anything but simple for him, in spite of the presence of the kindly Dr Casares (Federico Luppi), as young Carlos must contend with bullying from some of the other boys and the attentions of the sadistic caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). But these tribulations are as nothing when Carlos becomes the focus of attention for a ghost that haunts the orphanage, the ghost of a fellow orphan Santi, who disappeared (or died) in mysterious circumstances, and appears to Carlos to warn him that "many will die". As the war closes in on the orphanage and much of Santi's warning comes to pass, the orphans must band together to fight the real evil that threatens them.
This is both a superb ghost story, a riveting drama and a coming of age tale all rolled into one, and the isolated location of the orphanage coupled with the impending threat of violence, from the war, from the bullies, from Jacinto or from the ghostly warnings of Santi, give the film an almost unbearable sense of tension and dread. And when true horror is visited upon the orphanage and the boys must band together, the film becomes a morality tale as well as a study of what people are capable of in the most dire of circumstances (shades of Lord of the Flies methinks).
The film is never less than beautiful to look at, and Del Toro uses an economy of direction, avoiding showy special effects and letting the story do all the work for him, pulling a series of superb performances from his cast, in particular Federico Luppi as Dr Casares, a kind and dignified man who promises never to abandon the boys, and remains true to his word throughout the film, and Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto, a terrific study of sadistic bullying and greed, as well as abandonment and loss. This film is easily the equal of anything Del Toro has done previously, and something of a companion piece to his following movie, the justly celebrated Pans Labyrinth. By turns beautiful, atmospheric and when it wants to be, scary as hell.
on 27 March 2002
"What is a ghost ?" , asks the narrator in the opening scene of my favourite film of 2001. And the answer i got in the cinema at the end broke my heart. Now, i am glad to be able to watch it again on DVD.
The story is so powerful and absorbing that i forget that it is told in the Spanish language. This is one its many strengths. Pure cinema at its majestic beauty.
This is more than just a haunting ghost story. I adore every aspect of this masterpiece from the unforgettable characters and setting (Spain in the civil war riven 1930s) to the masterful storytelling style.
Thank you Mr Guillermo del Toro for this gift of a magnificent movie. With this one, i feel i am watching the ascendancy of a unique directorial Great. I don't have any knowledge of Spanish. But i am telling everyone i meet to watch this movie. Its themes of death, ghosts, wars, love and loss are too relevant now. We "need" this story. Saying anymore about the "Devil's Backbone" would be to rob you of the pleasure in discovering the many heartbreaking moments for yourself. Not even the Devil would do that.
on 6 November 2008
This isn't a review of the film, which is excellent, what really annoyed me were the subtitles. They're completely out of sync with the dialogue, sometimes with a delay of a couple of seconds, which was really distracting and means that you often can't tell who's actually speaking. The subtitle even freezes for a couple of minutes half way through at the worst possible moment, completely distracting from what's going on. Such a shame for a film that's so technically perfect.
At one point near the end of this film, the corrupt Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) discusses murdering a group of boys in an orphanage in order to escape with stolen gold. Who'll miss them? he asks - "a drop in the ocean". For me this line encapsulates "The Devil's Backbone" more than any other (even more than the much-discussed question of "What is a ghost?"). This film is about a small group of desperate people swept up in a war larger than they can imagine. To the viewer, events in this film are shattering, but at the end we know they are just a drop in the ocean of the Spanish Civil War. What will happen to the survivors after the film ends? There are no guarantees as to their safety.
Briefly - the plot. A boy Carlos is left by his guardian to stay at an orphanage run by left-wing sympathisers. Outside the war looms closer, the fascists gaining ground every day. Carlos must deals with bullying, loneliness and the violent threats of caretaker Jacinto. As if this wasn't enough, he must discover the truth about the mysterious figure haunting the orphanage at night. A voice that tells him, "Many of you will die..."
Guillermo del Toro's intimate and tender film is undoubtedly a ghost story - but don't come to it expecting a standard Hollywood-style horror flick. Although the ghost-seeking-revenge plotline in itself is probably the most traditional element of the film, it is just one part of a rich, deep and troubling look at one of Spain's most brutal periods. And "the one who sighs" himself is a truly original ghost - half child, half skeleton, releasing blood into the air as though floating through water. But like all the characters in the movie, even the villains, he earns our sympathy.
The cast are superb, including the children. Noriega applies the same brooding menace he has previously brought to films like "Open Your Eyes" and "Tesis". Jacinto is monstrous, moving like an animal determined to survive at any cost. There is also sadness there as we learn about his lonely childhood - the "prince without a kingdom". Federico Luppi as Casares and Marisa Paredes as Carmen are also strong, particularly their last scene together in the movie. The characters are afraid but dignified, Casares refusing to openly admit his love for his colleague.
For the most part "The Devil's Backbone" takes its time, setting the scene, opening mysteries and letting the characters develop. But as events spiral out of control the tension rises to a shocking climax two thirds in that will leave you gasping. I first saw this film in the cinema, and at this point the audience went absolutely quiet. This paves the way for the sad and desperate final act, as the children must save themselves and help "the one who sighs" gain his revenge.
This film is amazing and intensely moving, both tragic and beautiful.
on 10 December 2003
This isn't a very well known horror/suspense film and it's in Spanish with subtitles. I am a fan of horror, I enjoyed The Ring, The Thing, The Others etc. but there is more atmosphere
in this film than any of them. Its not gory or particularly scary but there is a chill factor to it. If you haven't seen this film don't let the Spanish subtitles put you off, it is fantastic.
on 23 February 2016
The Devil's Backbone is the most horrifying film Guillermo Del Toro has ever done, and not for reasons you would expect. It is a story that features a ghost, but it's purpose is foreshadowing the grim future at awaits.
During the last days of the Spanish Civil War. It tells the story of 10-year-old boy, Carlos, who after losing his father is sent to an orphanage on a remote desert island, where he meets a whole bunch of characters, one of which a bully (who he later befriends). The films pacing is really effective because it really does take the time to establish his friendship with the other children in an environment he is completely unfamiliar with. Both Fernando Tielve as Carlos and Íñigo Garcés as the hostile Jamie stand out so much in particular for me. I generally love how the children are written in this film as they just feel real and distinct. Also Federico Luppi gives a great performance as Dr. Casares, who is the doctor or the orphanage. And Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto, the caretaker is truly unforgettable.
The second half just explodes on you and the villain in the film is actually revealed about midway through the film and needless to say he is absolutely chilling. The truly horrifying thing about this film is actually about human nature, and what lengths someone would go to for the sake of greed showing absolutely no thought for any of the innocent lives including orphaned children just to get what he wants. It is the most challenging watch, and I could feel my heart just breaking in half at times.
Stylistically it's very grounded compared to other Del Toro films. The ghost of course has Del Toro written all over it, but it is definitely nothing like vibrant style of some of his previous work. It truly uses the desert and the bleak environment around them to maximum effect. The film is shot beautifully by Guillermo Navaro. It is so effectively suspenseful in every way and I could feel myself sitting on the edge of my seat just enthralled at this masterpiece that was happening in front of me. The score to this film is haunting and beautiful in just about every regard. This film is Guillermo Del Toro's true horror film, It is unflinching, uncompromising and absolutely demands your full attention with every passing moment. He stated that this was his most personal film and it really does show! This feels like a commentary on his views on the Spanish Civil War, and I think that is why this film has such a passionate feel to it. It's an essential film to watch in my opinion and personally, I think its on a par with Pan's Labyrinth!
on 4 June 2007
This was possibly the most beautiful (although slightly predictable) 'horror' film I have ever seen. It was a very well directed film which relied more heavily on the atmosphere than on extravagant effects. It conjured every emotion imaginable from sadness to revulsion. Even if you are not a fan of horror in the true sense of the word, this actually only accounted for around 5% of the film, the rest was made up of a very GOOD story - something which is often in short supply in today's horror films. - watch it! Even my husband enjoyed it and he usually moans like hell at sub-titled films!
on 8 March 2009
Most reviews I've read compare this to Pan's Labyrinth and find it wanting, well this isn't as good.
A lot are comparing it to their favourite ghost stories and say that it isn't as scary or as fast paced, maybe not.
But most films don't compare to Pan's Labyrinth and horror templates mean horror cliches, this is a film in it's own right and I think it's well worth four stars.
The packaging led me to expect a dark horror with jumps and guts etc, what I found was a film that revolves around a ghost but also around characters and backstory. The ghost of Santi is realised beautifully; he is a disturbing presence even when his true nature is revealed, he doesn't change from scary to benevolent as is the norm in this situation, and visually he is quite original, the bubbles and drifting blood are a great touch. So what is normally the weakest point of any horror is pulled off with aplomb.
As for the other characters, most are children, and their acting is excellent, I can't remember one weak link and the main actor - Fernando Tielve - makes the film. His face shows a level of emotion that should embarass adult actors, and none of it is forced or parodied.
Marisa Paredes as Carmen is also fascinating and slightly disturbing. Is she a hurt soul looking for love? Is she callous and manipulative? Nope, she's just real.
The look is quite unique as well, I can't think of many (any?) "spooky" films that are mostly highly lit and take place in daytime, bright spanish daytime at that. Even the dormitory and cellar where all the horror action takes place are reasonably bright, no film making crutches used here.
However, the pacing is slightly odd. The scenes are cut in such a way that it lurches from horror to domesticity to politics to emotional dialogue and back again in a way that doesn't allow any of the moods to build.
Personally, I quite enjoyed this because it removes the stock devices of mood manipulation used by directors and editors which force you to feel one way or the other. In this way the strengths of the story stand on their own. I can appreciate though that this would lessen the film for some, if you like to be in pant-wetting terror for an hour and a half then you might give this a miss.
So, it isn't as good, or as original as Pan's Labyrinth. But for a ghost story it's not overly derivative and has a feel of it's own.
on 13 January 2016
unusual story set in the Spanish civil war as was Pans Labyrinth both films made by the one and only Guillermo del Toro superbly acted by all the cast especially the youngsters. amazing could watch this time and again. fans of supernatural films will really love this great story line. x