Criterion // 2001 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // August 23rd, 2013
The living will always be more dangerous than the dead.
Guillermo del Toro is something of a national treasure. While he's been the subject of much internet hyperbole thanks to the endlessly hyped Pacific Rim (and subsequently the target of some of the backlash against said hype), del Toro is the kind of filmmaker that fanboys and movie lovers should be championing. He is smart, he is passionate and he is endlessly creative. While I haven't found every one of his movies to be flawless success, there is always a lot to admire even in the ones that don't totally work.
One of his lesser-known efforts, the 2001 ghost story The Devil's Backbone, falls somewhere in the middle. There's much to like: it's confidently made, boasts a ton of atmosphere and clearly has some ideas not just about the effects of war but on childhood and what is scary to children, who maybe don't yet realize that they're not scared of the right things. But it's also an uneven movie, one that might have spent more time on its supernatural elements and less on its one-dimensional villain. What begins as an interesting parable has, by the end, become a by-the-numbers horror movie.
Set during the final year of the Spanish Civil War (1939), The Devil's Backbone finds a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arriving at an orphanage run by Carmen (Marisa Paredes, The Skin I Live In) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi, Cronos). Also working at the orphanage is the caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega, Open Your Eyes), who may or may not have the best of intentions. As the boys are constantly reminded of the war that rages outside the walls of the orphanage (specifically by an undetonated bomb that sits in the courtyard), Carlos begins to be visited by the ghost of a young boy. What he wants and why he is appearing, Carlos is not sure, though it may have something to do with the orphanage's secret stockpile of gold, or the bomb that sits outside.
It's impossible to watch The Devil's Backbone, a movie about a child trying to cope with the horror of the Spanish Civil War and being drawn into the world of the supernatural, and not also think of del Toro's 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth. Seeing The Devil's Backbone now, it almost feels like the warmup for that later movie -- and, unfortunately for this reviewer, Pan's Labyrinth does it better. That's not to say that The Devil's Backbone is without value just because del Toro topped himself; perhaps my reaction has more to do with the fact that I saw the two movies in reverse order than with the quality of either. But >whereas Pan's Labyrinth seamlessly combined the fantasy and realistic aspects of its story, The Devil's Backbone smashes them together a little more clumsily -- like del Toro had two different things he wanted to do but didn't quite figure how to do it. As much as I like horror movies (and few filmmakers do gothic horror better than del Toro), the stuff with Carlos experiencing the Civil War within the confines of the orphanage is a more interesting film. The director shows a lot of sensitivity and understanding of childhood that few filmmakers are able to accomplish. It's only later in the movie when the plot really has to be resolved and certain characters show their true colors that things become problematic.
Criterion does their usual incredible job with The Devil's Backbone on Blu-ray, gracing the film with one of the most beautiful transfers I've yet seen on the HD format. Del Toro's use of color pops in the way that '60s Technicolor so often does, and even the darker nighttime sequences (of which there are many) don't lose any nuance or detail. The print looks completely pristine. This is a gorgeous 1080p transfer, and it's the best thing about the disc. The lossless DTS-HD Spanish audio track (presented with English subtitles) is no slouch, either, as Del Toro layers his ghost story with lots of creepy ambience and cool surround effects. The dialogue is always well balanced, and while the track is never showy, it has been mixed with care and intelligence.
As usual with Criterion, there is a bounty of bonus features to be found on the disc. First up is a video introduction from del Toro, as well as a feature length commentary from the director, ported over from the 2004 DVD release. It's a good talk, full of his usual passion and smart observations about filmmaking. A 30-minute documentary, "Que es un fantasma?," focuses on the production of the movie and features interviews with most of the key personnel. There are a lot of interviews in the supplemental section, actually: "Summoning Spirits," in which del Toro talks about the movie's special effects and ghost character, "Spanish Gothic," in which he talks about making the movie (and brings up Pan's Labyrinth, so the similarities are not lost on him), "Designing The Devil's Backbone," in which del Toro talks about the movie's sets and production design, and "A War of Values," an interview with Sebastian Farber, a Spanish Civil War scholar, on the film's historical and political subtext. A collection of four deleted scenes are included, presented with optional audio commentary. Rounding out the bonus features are the original trailer and a series of art galleries, which include original del Toro design sketches and storyboards for the film.
The Devil's Backbone marks an interesting chapter in Guillermo del Toro's career. Smarting from the experience making Mimic in the Hollywood studio system, del Toro went back and made a smaller movie that explores several of his passions. It's not his best movie -- it's not even his best movie on this exact subject -- but it is a moody, quiet ghost story that works as a political parable, too. del Toro is a talented enough filmmaker that his every film deserves our attention, and Criterion's bonus features do a good job of contextualizing the movie and increasing one's appreciation of the creativity and skill on display. You know, the way bonus features are supposed to.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Spanish)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Art Galleries