Review of "The Devil's Backbone" (2001) DVD

Review of "The Devil's Backbone" (2001) DVD
"The Devil's Backbone" (2001) - Director: Guillermo del Toro - Starring: Fernando Tielve, Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes - Spanish with subtitles - Review contains some mild spoilers.
Updated: 09-19-2003

I'll be honest, I'm not generally a fan of movies starring children. It's not that I dislike kids - I have a tremendous amount of empathy for them and for anyone at the mercy of adults, powerless. It's just that so often, kids in movies are either portrayed as midget idiots or as wise-cracking, obnoxiously precocious snots. But when kids are shown as the strong, smart yet vulnerable people that they are - and childhood is shown in all its true lights and darks - it can be beautifully painful.

And "beautifully painful" nearly sums up Guillermo del Toro's "The Devil's Backbone". To complete the description, add "eerie" and "suspenseful". Though the main storyline focuses on a vengeful young ghost, interwoven are themes of unrealized love, the destructiveness of greed, the tragedy of war, and the pain of growing up.

The movie begins during the Spanish Civil War as twelve-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is taken to a crowded orphanage by his father's friends, who have neither the heart to tell the boy his father is dead nor the interest in caring for Carlos. It doesn't take long for him to discover that the ghost of a young boy inhabits the basement of one of the buildings. What does the ghost want? Of all the children, only Carlos is brave enough to discover the truth behind a young boy's senseless death.

Before he does, Carlos and his friends face the ultimate in evil. There are some seriously scary scenes involving the ghost, but the most horrific acts in "Backbone" - as in life - are perpetrated by live adults. The love triangle between the greedy, cold-hearted young Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the maimed schoolmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), and the lovelorn doctor Casares (Federico Luppi) is heartbreaking and worthy of a movie all by itself.

But what makes this movie work is del Toro's treatment of the children. Their actions and interactions are so real and so true that it brings back memories of your own childhood, of times when you felt so small and so alone. The child actors - like the entire cast - are excellently cast, and the script is top-notch.

The only quibble I have (and it's minor) is that the movie has so many plots and subplots stuffed in that there are a couple moments that drag a little bit. However, I can't think of what could be cut without sacrificing character development. Because it's a fully developed film rather than a slash fest, the action necessarily slows at points.

"The Devil's Backbone" has enough quality gore and scare for most horror buffs, but it's not just a horror movie. It's a love story, a coming-of-age story, a war tale. Even if the supernatural elements of the film were removed, it would still be a compelling story. With the supernatural elements left in, it's quite possibly one of the most well-rounded, well-acted, and beautifully shot horror movies I've ever seen. If you're a fan of del Toro (Blade 2, Cronos, etc.), or just a fan of good movies, I highly recommend this one.

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