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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
The Devil's Backbone (2001)

"Sometimes I think that we are the ghosts."
- Carmen (Marisa Paredes)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: August 14, 2002

Stars: Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Pareides, Federico Luppi
Other Stars: Iñigo Garcés, Fernando Tielve, Irene Visedo, Berta Ojea
Director: Guillermo del Toro

MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and some sexuality
Run Time: 01h:47m:41s
Release Date: June 25, 2002
UPC: 043396082830
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+B+ B

DVD Review

Don't wake Grandma and the kids for this one, but The Devil's Backbone is a taut and entertaining movie from Guillermo del Toro, the young Mexican filmmaker who directed Cronos, Mimic and Blade II. It doesn't forge new cinematic ground, but it does a fine job reimagining some tried and true movie conventions, and if you hang with it, it's sure to put a good scare into you.

During the last months of the Spanish Civil War, little Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is deposited by his tutor at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere, a two-day walk to the nearest tiny little town. Carlos' father has been killed in the war, though the boy hasn't been told, but his abandonment to this warehouse for homeless boys must make his situation clear to him.

The war has come home to the boys in an even more direct and pungent fashion, when shortly before Carlos' arrival a bomb landed in the courtyard of the orphanage, though it didn't explode. It's defused and becomes by default a plaything for the children, though some of them harbor their doubts as to whether the bomb truly can't go off. And despite not being detonated, the bomb became very much a harbinger of bad times, for the night that it landed, one of the best liked boys, Santi, disappeared. Poor Carlos has been assigned Santi's bed, making the boy from the apparently privileged background even more of a target.

There are the ravages of war, the terror of boys on the verge of adolescence, and the rumors of a ghost haunting the grounds conspiring against an easy time for Carlos and his new mates. The school is run by Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), a well-meaning but ineffectual man, who cannot express his passion for Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the widowed teacher whose artificial leg is an object of both fascination and revulsion for the boys (and for the filmmakers). Irene Visedo plays Conchita, the young woman helping to run the school who must be the object of the older boys' sexual fantasies, especially as she goes out with the menacing Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), himself a product of the orphanage, seething with anger and resentment. Jacinto keeps one eye out for boys he can torture, the other on the gold that the revolutionaries have stashed on the premises for safekeeping.

As you might imagine, the battles between these adults make for some terrifying theater for the boys, and add in a dollop of mystical Catholicism, and you've got a heady brew for a horror movie. As punishment, for instance, the boys are ordered to lug an enormous crucifix through the courtyard, a forbidding Jesus staring down at them as they drag him around, and the movie is chock full of these tiny terrors. The most upsetting is probably the manner in which, according to Casares, the orphanage covers expenses: the doctor keeps deformed fetuses preserved in rum in sample jars in his office, and routinely siphons off the rum to sell to the locals, who insist that it has a magical ability to cure any number of ailments. It is especially popular with older men, as the rum is rumored to help with impotence.

The filmmakers obviously know the conventions of the genre, and they are terrifically skilled at using both their and our knowledge to make a satisfying story. This isn't a straightforward ghost story, nor is it merely a heightened soap opera; and it's the elegance with which the film borrows the conventions of a number of genres that is so appealing. It's partly a horror story, partly a melodrama, and what the film does so well is marrying the classic elements of a child's screen nightmare with the added terror of living through wartime.I cop to having a certain phobia about child actors—it's hard for me to watch them and not imagine the fussy, preening stage mothers and fathers just off camera—but the boys here are asked to carry a tremendous amount of the narrative, and they do very good work. (No doubt it helps that my high-school Spanish is appalling, too.)

It's also a movie, no doubt, to give you nightmares. The terror comes from the boys learning about mortality and death in a variety of guises—where is their missing comrade Santi? And their parents? And the adults they see day to day who disappear one by one? Too much exposition will give away some of the best plot turns, but suffice it to say that the film does a worthy job of delivering on its promise.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The filmmakers clearly took great care with their color palette, and this transfer shows off their work in a more than respectable manner. Much of the color is bled out of the frame, and the blues, grays and greens that dominate are strong, saturated and consistent. Grain is occasionally evident, in the night scenes especially, but not to the point of interfering with the image.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: As a good horror movie should, this one takes advantage of the possibilities inherent in a 5.1 track, and the rear speakers are full of the suggestion of the things moving around corner and behind walls. Generally, the audio transfer is well balanced, with fine dynamics and little hissing.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring 13 Ghosts, All About My Mother, Not One Less
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Guillermo del Toro and Guillermo Navarro
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The director and cinematographer provide an excellent commentary track, and as you might guess, they spend a good amount of time talking about the images and the effects used to achieve them. They speak extensively about the actors and the general warmth with which they were greeted by their Spanish crew (both del Toro and Navarro are Mexican), and the director is especially winning when he confesses: "I hate dialogue. I hate shooting it, I hate writing it." So he takes his medicine in a couple of scenes designed to provide all the necessary exposition, and then is happy to tell much of his story exclusively with pictures.

Del Toro previously worked as a storyboard artist, so the inclusion of some storyboards on this disc is particularly welcome—five scenes play out on the bottom right of the screen as the storyboards for them appear on the top left. It's fascinating, but you may wish you had a bigger television, as the screen gets pretty cramped.

The making-of featurette (12m:57s) includes interviews with the principal actors and filmmakers, and it's not especially revealing, except about too much of the movie's plot. If you don't want to spoil the surprises, watch the film first, and the extras afterward.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

The copy on the back of the DVD case compares this movie to The Others and The Sixth Sense, but The Devil's Backbone can more than stand on its own merits. A twisted and twisting horror story, it may not exactly be fun for the whole family, but it's a smart and satisfying genre piece infused with a good amount of ingenuity.


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