Tuesday, October 28, 2008

#106: El Espinazo del diablo (The Devil's Backbone)


The Devil's Backbone
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz
Released April 20, 2001 (Spain)

Honest to God, there is more passion, style and substance in the opening 5 minutes of Guillermo del Toro's El Espinazo del diablo than in most of the movies on this October slate (don't worry, Dario Argento, I ain't lookin' at you!). When you watch over 100 movies virtually in a row, you start to really be able to tell who is putting their heart into it and who is half-assing it (or just doesn't even have the skills to be able to record a memorable image to film).

When I sit down to a movie with Guillermo del Toro's name on it, I at least know I'm getting something that the dude put some thought into -- and yes, that even includes Blade II. After drudging through the almost frozen-in-place Tales from the Crypt, I looked forward to some sort of fresh vision. Or, at the very least, some mood lighting or a creatively composed shot.

Well, I got all of that and a lot more.

The Devil's Backbone is a ghost story that is on par with del Toro's heartbreaking masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth. It shares a similar tone, along with some parallel story elements (like the use of bookending narration that becomes far more enlightening at the climax). In the case of the latter movie, a child was escaping her terrible predicament through her own sense of fantasy. Unfortunately for the characters in The Devil's Backbone, both their predicaments and the spectres that haunt them are very, very real.

The man must have a knack for coaxing believable, natural performances out of children, because del Toro once again tells his story predominantly through the eyes of a group of orphans, and most specifically through the eyes of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), an innocent but brave young boy who is left at the doorstep of the orphanage, still unaware that his father has been killed in the Spanish Civil War.

Not long after Carlos arrives at the home, the ghost of another boy begins to reveal himself in the shadows of the secluded basement. Who is he? What does he want? What happened in that basement?

Labeling The Devil's Backbone as simply a Horror movie, or as a ghost story, isn't really giving the film the credit it is due. While there are elements of both, much like in Pan's Labyrinth, it's also a moral tale, a suspenseful yarn and a bit of a mystery.

Best of all, it's incredibly well made. From the cinematography, the lighting, the striking art direction (especially the creation of the ghost), the use of music, the almost palpable atmosphere and setting, it's about as perfect as an independently produced film can get. Kudos to del Toro, along with producer Pedro Almodovar, a visionary director in his own right who helped bring to prominence the vivid and seemingly bottomless creativity in the Spanish film industry.

As we near the end of this month of Horror filmmaking, I can say without a doubt this is one of the best films I've watched so far.

For more on The Devil's Backbone:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- The movie's Sony Classics site
- Buy the DVD.

The trailer for The Devil's Backbone:

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