Judge Joel Pearce finds much to rave about with this new edition of Guillermo del Toro's ghost story masterpiece.
Our reviews of The Devil's Backbone (published October 2nd, 2002) and The Devil's Backbone (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published August 23rd, 2013) are also available.
"What is a ghost? A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain perhaps? Something dead that still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph, like an insect trapped in amber."
In the years between Mimic and his more recent comic-book films, Guillermo del Toro directed The Devil's Backbone, one of the most satisfying horror movies I have seen in a very long time. This special edition proves once again that the best results on DVD happen when a director is directly involved with the transfer and special features.
Facts of the Case
In the last days of the Spanish Civil War, a young boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is taken to a remote school that cares for orphans. The school is also friendly to the Republic, however, and the principal Carmen (Marisa Paredes, All About My Mother) is holding gold for the cause. There is much more happening than that happening at Santa Lucia school, though, which seems to involve the seemingly kind Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi, Cronos), an older orphan named Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), and a worker at the school that had been an orphan there years before named Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega, Open Your Eyes).
Somehow, there is a connection between these characters, the hidden gold, the bomb that fell in the courtyard but did not explode, and "the one who moans," a ghost that appears to the boys at night. With the end of the war approaching, however, tangible forces may be more dangerous to the safety of the school than the supernatural.
Because of when it came out, The Devil's Backbone has often been compared to The Sixth Sense and The Others. This film shares something of the tone of those more famous films, and it does involve ghosts, so I can understand why this comparison has been made. Both of those were gimmick films, however, a supernatural scare story that drives towards an all-important final twist. That's not to say that they are bad films, which they're not, but they don't offer as full or rich an experience as this creepy Spanish masterpiece. The biggest twist in The Devil's Backbone happens about two-thirds in, after which point all of the pieces of the story come rushing in toward a bigger conflict. The result is that I found myself on the edge of my seat during this film not just because there were scary things happening, because I was excited to see where the story was going to take me next.
It would be really hard to tackle a story with this many interconnecting facets and complex characters without ending up with a huge mess. A number of things work together to unify and balance these elements. The first is a tight, intelligent script. Twists and surprises that would seem preposterous in any other film make total sense here, and there is an unexpected unity between the supernatural and political elements of the story. The cinematography is also remarkable, creating a real sense of space both inside and outside of the school. It is immediately clear when we enter the school that we are entering another world, and yet it's a world that has been invaded by the political situation outside. The bomb in the courtyard acts as a constant reminder of the danger from outside, and it is always looming over the proceedings. The color design also helps to hold the film together, reinforcing the events of the film without becoming overbearing or blunt. The special effects are just as good, using a mixture of subtle CGI and practical effects to create a compelling and believable ghost.
The Devil's Backbone would have been a total failure if it wasn't for the stellar cast. In the documentary on the disc, del Toro admits that it's a real challenge directing children, especially when so much of the film rests on Carlos. Fernando Tielve reminded me many times of a young Matthew Broderick, with a level of innocence and charisma that immediately draws us in and makes us care deeply for what happens to him in this new place. His performance is matched by that of Íñigo Garcés, who makes us unsure of whether or not we can trust Jaime. The adult cast shares this ambiguity. Dr. Casares seems like a kindly old man, but there is something frightening about him, and he looks a lot like Christopher Lee. Carmen seems to have more secrets than she is immediately letting on and Jacinto seems to be the catalyst for the events that are about to unfold. With this many key characters and many more minor characters, it would have been easy for some of them to slip into the background. None of them do, though, and I think it's one of the best examples of an ensemble cast in a horror film.
I wish I could say more about what happens, some of the fascinating developments and surprising elements that show up throughout the film. I wouldn't want to ruin any of it for anyone though, so I am going to keep my mouth shut on that side of things. What I do want to talk about briefly is how well the notion of war has been integrated into a ghost story in this case. At the onset of the film, the war outside of the school seems like a perfect counterpoint to the ghost inside the school. It could be seen as a result of the fear and horror of war as well as a representation of the dark secrets that the school holds. However, as the film progresses, the war outside becomes more and more important to the main plot, which makes a comment about the Spanish Civil War in more specific terms. They were getting a head start on the Second World War, and at this point in the late 1930s, they were nearing the end of one war and the beginning of another. Del Toro chose the perfect time in history to place this tale of hopelessness and ghosts.
While I can't compare the transfer of this edition with the previous one, I can confidently say that this is one of the best DVD transfers that I have ever seen. The video transfer was supervised by del Toro, and it looks pretty much perfect. The colors are rendered perfectly, the dark levels are rich and impressive, the detail levels are razor sharp, and there are no digital flaws. Considering that this isn't a huge budget film, this isn't just reference quality, it's a miracle.
The sound is every bit as good. The LFE channel and surrounds are used to great effect with ambient noise and music, everything is mixed perfectly, and the dialogue is always audible. The subtitles are well-timed and easily read, giving us more time to concentrate on the visuals. The film has a rich orchestral score that sounds both crisp and rich. You can definitely add this disc to your home theatre show-off list.
In addition to a near-perfect transfer, this disc is also loaded up with great extra features. The most significant of these is the commentary with Guillermo del Toro, in which he does something different than I have ever heard before. Instead of talking about the film in general terms, he talks about the process of creating a film that is a hybrid between a Spanish Civil War movie, Gothic horror, and fairy tale. He does a great job with this track, demonstrating the amount of thought and synthesis that goes into a film of this nature. Del Toro is an extremely literate filmmaker, calling on a wide range of sources. He wanted to craft a film that built on these traditions but also stands on its own as a unique piece of art. Not everyone will be interested in listening to this track, but viewers who are interested in these sources of the film will find it one of the most fascinating commentary tracks ever. This is a different commentary track than was on the older disc, though that commentary has not been included on this disc. It's too bad that both tracks weren't included here.
There is also a documentary on the making of The Devil's Backbone, which sits squarely in between informative and fluffy. At the beginning, del Toro and a number of other crew members discuss some of the creative decisions that had to be made during pre-production. Del Toro talks about how difficult it is to direct child actors. After that, it becomes an overview of the cast, in which everyone says nice things about each other. Still, there is some explanation of why the cast was chosen, so it makes for an interesting watch. There are also a few deleted scenes, with an optional director's commentary. These are brief but interesting scenes, which could have been added in but were left out for good reasons.
The other extras explore the art design of the film, which is a great addition to this disc. There is a feature that shows the thumbnail drawings of del Toro next to both the finished storyboards and the final film in several key scenes. This gives an interesting perspective on how much (or little) a film changes from conception to presentation. If that's not enough for you, there is a thumbnail track that shows the original del Toro drawings though most of the film. There are also some galleries, including production photographs, more sketches, and a few pages from Guillermo del Toro's directing notebook. These are all cool, but as usual far too small to be valuable. A nice insert would have been a better way to display some of this information. Still, this is a lot of bonus features, making for a satisfying disc to explore. From what I can tell, it seems like mostly new material, with only the storyboards ported over from the old disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If I were to make any complaints about The Devil's Backbone, it would be that it isn't really that frightening. Personally, I don't think it's a problem, because I would rather see a horror movie that's interesting and compelling, while only offering a few scary moments. Still, fright lovers and gorehounds may find it to be too slow and contemplative for their tastes.
There's something timeless about The Devil's Backbone, combined with a feel that's decidedly contemporary and slick. While I am a fan of del Toro's more recent work, I somehow missed catching this until now. If you're in the same boat, pick up this edition right away, as it is probably his best film to date. If you already own the old edition, the choice may be harder. This transfer is perfect, so if you're a technophile, you will want to upgrade. Fans of ghost stories will definitely want to add this disc to their collections.
Not even remotely guilty. Columbia has actually produced a worthwhile double dip, and on a film that deserves it.
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Scales of Justice
• Director's Commentary
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