I watched another foreign film recently, this one in the horror genre in order to get those Halloween vibes going last weekend. The Devil’s Backbone is a Spanish film by Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). I remember that movie as being quite violent, and hoped this one, which actually preceded Pan’s Labyrinth by five years, would not be as bad in that regard. The film is rated R for violence, language and some sexuality. Pedro Almodovar produced it; those aware of Spanish filmmaking will recognize his name, a prolific filmmaker himself.
Set during the Spanish civil war in 1939, this was a time when children were sent to orphanages to protect them from the ravages of war or when the opposing party killed their parents and they became orphans.
This is a horror film, one promising the specter of ghosts, secrets to be revealed, and for the boys in the orphanage, their courage to be tested. Early on in the film it is established that the Spaniards are a superstitious people, and the devil’s backbone explained (and shown in graphic detail!).
Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12 year old whose father has been killed, is dropped off at an isolated boys’ orphanage by a man he refers to as his tutor, who subsequently leaves him without saying goodbye. Carlos is despondent, but quickly tries to fit in with the other boys, all orphaned and abandoned children who are taken care of by headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi). Carmen is a tough woman with the boys, but has a soft side, as seen in her fondness for the poetry Dr. Casares recites from memory.
Carlos apparently has “the gift,” because he sees the ghost of Santi, a young boy who has been missing for some time. Santi wants Carlos to know something and pursues him when darkness falls, much to Carlos’ horror.
Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a man who was an orphan and lived at the orphanage when he was young, has returned and now works there. He has many secrets, some of which he has in common with Carmen, their complicated relationship hidden from Jacinto’s girlfriend and the boys.
The boys hunt for slugs in a cellar where a well draws the creatures in, and the cellar ultimately holds the key to Santi’s disappearance. I found the bleak landscape, and the defused bomb sitting in the courtyard ominous and foreboding, and the ghost of Santi held me spellbound.
The film was less violent than Pan’s Labyrinth I thought, although if you are sensitive to violence, it could disturb you. Even though the ghost of the film is supernatural, the plotline and the events that transpire felt real, as if they could have happened in a country torn by war, where death was everywhere, and innocents had to grow up quickly.
If you’re looking for an adult movie, something creepy and with a good storyline, The Devil’s Backbone may be just the one for you.