Our reviews of The Devil's Backbone: Special Edition (published August 16th, 2004) and The Devil's Backbone (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published August 23rd, 2013) are also available.
What is a ghost?
Dark, moody and elegant—all these things describe Guillermo Del Toro's third feature length film, El Espinazo del Diablo, or The Devil's Backbone. It is this fine tuned elegance, this mastery of tone and style, that make The Devil's Backbone one of the most haunting of ghost stories in many a year. It gives me great pleasure to also report that Columbia has come through with mostly flying colors for the movie's DVD incarnation, making it one of the better discs I have seen from them in quite some time.
Facts of the Case
In Spain during their Civil War, a boy's orphanage is the site of great tragedy and great terror, beset by war and the greed of man. A monster roams its halls, filled with rage, looking to right the wrongs in its life, willing to kill both the young and old within.
Guillermo Del Toro's The Devil's Backbone finds itself released at the tail end of the incredible box office popularity of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense and Alejandro Amenabar's The Others. The directors of these ghostly films share a great kinship, with roots planted firmly in the past but with very modern sensibilities. All three are skilled in the craft of film and are capable of building great tension while piling on loads of atmosphere. Still, I find important differences in their individual styles. Of the three directors, M. Night Shyamalan works with the most emotional detachment. He meticulously builds the details of his story in a subtle fashion, waiting until the last moments to push that all away and force feed his audience the ending. Then there is The Others' Alejandro Amenabar; as a director, he is a little more red blooded in his approach, but his films (at least the two I've seen) come off as a little chilly.
Which leaves us with Guillermo Del Toro. Stop me if you know where this is going, but of the three, I find Del Toro to be the superior director. Shyamalan and Amenabar both make excellent films, yet there is something about Del Toro that is really special. It's fun to watch The Sixth Sense and The Others a couple times—once to enjoy the ride, once more to examine the skill that went into their construction—but with The Devil's Backbone, I continually find myself returning for another viewing. The film has a power that causes it to linger long in the memory. It shocks and surprises, but it does so in a quiet, powerful fashion and never once looks down its nose at the viewer. It is elegantly fashioned, with a simple story of primitive emotions and experiences that is never simple minded. Both The Sixth Sense and The Others are fairly straightforward movies, and once you lock onto the conceit of each film, the fun kind of drains away. Not so with The Devil's Backbone.
Please pardon the pun, but The Devil's Backbone is truly a haunting experience. It is unafraid to make the leap beyond common horror movie and to pose questions that define our concepts of humanity and decency. It reels you in with misdirection; what you are getting at first turns out to be completely different from what you end up with. Yes, there are ghosts running around the orphanage, but the real monster of the piece comes in an all too human form and our "spirit" seems as afraid of the other children as the children are of it. This approach to the material makes Del Toro the more interesting of the three directors. Add to that, as a stylist he is the more visceral filmmaker of the group and the most unapologetic of the fact that he is making horror movies. Del Toro understands that violence and gore are the trappings of the genre, and he is not afraid to use them, not excessively but as a needed storytelling tool.
As I watch his movies, it's obvious there is a pure enthusiasm to Del Toro's work, a sense that this is a man doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing. I also appreciate that he is very aware of the differences in tone between this movie and something like Blade II. Both are meant to scare, but with Blade II the violence is as broadly drawn as its comic book origins. I look at these two movies as if they were cars with manual transmissions. In Blade II, the car is screaming through the night in fifth gear while The Devil's Backbone is content to take the ride slow in third. One movie shouts, the other whispers. If, as mentioned, the actions carried out in Blade II are huge and superheroic, then the things done by and to other living beings in The Devil's Backbone are stark and matter-of-fact. These actions are executed in a style that highlights how painful and sudden violence can be. The boy's life presented in The Devil's Backbone is often cruel, yet when Del Toro deals with a world intruded upon by spirits, he makes things happen in a stylized, darkly lyrical and almost wondrous manner. This sense of boyish innocence and hope helps define The Devil's Backbone as something more than just your average trip to the boneyard. We watch the supernatural elements intermingle with real situations, and as they combine, these separate parts take shape and begin to resemble the structure of a fairy tale. The fairy tale aspects of the story, built among the decay of the world, grant it weight and help to suspend our disbelief. In classic fairy tales, consequences were derived from moral actions or inaction. Such is the case here, as people make choices and are forced to pay the price for their decisions. It is also worth noting that in real fairy tales, as opposed to the ones co-opted by Walt Disney, things rarely end neatly.
As mentioned above, it's obvious Del Toro has a tremendous respect for what has come before him, and it is easy to see a deeply rooted classicism in his movies. In the course of all his films, he clearly makes nods to the past, but his method is more than common pastiche; rather, he takes this knowledge, this reverence, and fuses it with a heightened naturalism that manages to be heartbreaking and frightening in the same moment. It's a fine line in tone, one that requires a delicate touch but clearly it is a mastery Del Toro possesses.
Del Toro's touch with tone and approach is not limited to the behind-the-scenes; he shows equal skill in dealing with his performers. It is to his credit that the film's veteran actors come off as well as his child actor's do. Performances are pitch perfect and contain as much mystery as the film's plot. Of particular note are Marisa Paredes (Life Is Beautiful) as Carmen and Federico Luppi (Men With Guns) as Dr. Casares. Their unrequited passion is the soil from which this movie grows. Eduardo Noriega, Ingio Garces, and Fernando Tielve may all have flashier roles, but Paredes and Luppi ground the movie in texture and attitude.
On the disc end, I'm happy to report that overall, this is one of the better Columbia efforts I have viewed in some time. To start, the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is preserved and given anamorphic enhancement. At first blush, this image is razor sharp and a beautiful thing to behold. On my 32" set, colors seem to leap off the screen with ambers that have a rich glow and blacks that look as inky as the midnight sky. Excellent saturation is the order of the day and there is not a hint of instability. Alas, this clarity does come with a price that probably grows more expensive for those with larger screen displays. To achieve these razor sharp images, some serious edge enhancement was employed. Upon close inspection, noticeable instances of ringing and halos occur throughout the film, and it really is a shame. It should be noted that because of this edge enhancement, my initial Video rating was reduced by 15 points for the Scales of Justice section.
Happily, there are no caveats with the sound on this disc. The track is an outstanding 5.1 Dolby Digital mix presented in Spanish with English subtitles. This is a richly textured affair that adds to the total effect of the movie. Dialogue, music, and effects are all mixed together to form a creepy, atmospheric whole that adds to the weight of the film. For me, this is what sound in film is supposed to be about. While it's not as densely packed as your average David Lynch film, it comes close. Fidelity is excellent, channel separation is highly effective, and the bass packs quite the wallop. Like the film itself, little details expose themselves at unlikely moments and form an aural tapestry that is quite remarkable.
While this Sony Pictures Classics release was not exactly a box office barn burner, The Devil's Backbone is thankfully well served on DVD. First up and of most importance on the disc is an audio commentary by director Guillermo Del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Jackie Brown). I've decided that after listening to this track, as well as the one on Blade II, that Del Toro is clearly a force to be reckoned with. His passion for his movies and for film in general is infectious. This man clearly loves what he is doing and is fascinated by the power of the medium. If you are someone who normally does not listen to film commentaries because you think most filmmakers are snobby and uptight, give this track a listen. Del Toro really comes off as a regular guy…granted, one who happens to have a really cool job, but still, just a good guy. Everything about the movie is covered in no small degree of detail by Del Toro and Navarro, and it almost sounds as if the pair wished the film were longer so they could tell more stories about it. Personally, I'll take that kind of enthusiasm any day of the week.
There is also a short making-of featurette that is a step or two above the usual electronic press kit material, as well as some storyboard comparisons and the movie's theatrical trailer. I think as DVD fans we often get lost in the hype of this two-disc set or that five-disc set when all we are really getting is a little bit of the good stuff and an awful lot of fluff. The materials here contain exactly what I'm looking for in a disc—pertinent information about a movie I liked. To that end, I thank Columbia for their efforts.
If you liked The Fog, The Changeling, or Del Toro's earlier Cronos, you are probably going to like The Devil's Backbone. A deeply layered and involving film, it is so much more than the usual slice and dice event among the tombstones. The director has crafted a horror movie that settles in and scares on many levels. The suspense he builds is based in reality, and Del Toro proves one of his strongest gifts is not forgetting to make the mystical aspects of horror movies, super natural.
The disc itself is solid, save the issues with the video transfer, and should not hold the average consumer back from purchasing this release. Highly recommended.
Perhaps it is because American films too often spell everything out in lowest common denominator terms, but The Devil's Backbone is content to show its hand in a pace that is best described as leisurely. Nothing about the film feels rushed or forced and everything seems to have its place. The actors, the plot, the design of the movie all feel natural and of the period. I'm unwilling to climb a mountain and proclaim The Devil's Backbone to be a modern classic, but in a world of bad movies and worse horror movies, it is something special.
If The Devil's Backbone is something special, its appearance on disc is welcome. Columbia is thanked for a job well done, but is advised to pull back the edge enhancement a notch or three.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Guillermo Del Toro and Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro
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