|Devil's Backbone, The|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 25 June 2002|
Set in Spain during that country’s 1930s civil war, “Backbone” introduces us to 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) as he is dropped off at an orphanage by his tutor, who feels compelled to join the anti-Fascist cause. The headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and kindly old Professor Casares (Federico Luppi) are also in the anti-Fascist movement, which means that the orphanage may become an intentional target of the Fascist army. There is already an enormous unexploded bomb sitting half-buried in the school courtyard, deposited accidentally during a nighttime aerial raid. Carlos finds himself adrift among ominously preoccupied adults and a menacing sea of young boys in an ancient, dilapidated environment that is prowled by a visible, tangible ghost. The children whisper that the ghost came with the bomb – and it seems to have a particular interest in Carlos.
“The Devil’s Backbone” combines tried and true horror tactics – shadows, naturalistic quiet sound hinted-at gruesome imagery (that pays off by being every bit as terrifying as implied when we finally see it full on) – and resonant storytelling to achieve its effects. Director Guillermo Del Toro and his fellow screenwriters Agustin Trashorras & David Munoz create a world that is mysterious and frightening even before its supernatural component is brought forward. Del Toro gives us a child’s-eye view of Carlos’ peers, who are realistically curious and inviting, yet potentially lethal. The adults, meanwhile, have emotional lives that are complex, revelatory and devastating. The film is intricate without being confusing or oblique, rich in event and characterization without stinting on the scares.
Performances are wonderful. Luppi is the epitome of aging dignity, Paredes is proud and tough and Tielve is convincingly inquisitive and solemn. Eduardo Noriega makes a strong impression as the school’s unhappy young caretaker and Irene Visedo is graceful as his principled lover.
The DVD faithfully preserves the rich yellows, oranges and golds that predominate in the sunlit sequences and the murky greens and blues that dominate dark interiors and night sequences. The ghost is an especially well-rendered, disturbing effect, discussed in detail on the audio commentary track in Chapter 16 during one of its appearances.
Sound plays a great role here, from a whistling wind pitched so precisely that we can practically feel the cold to rattling breathing and sighs that cause our skin to crawl. For instance, in Chapter 9, a ceramic jug is set down precisely, with just the tiniest amount of impact, a tiny ambient overture to whispers that begin unnervingly in the rears, just present enough to make your hair stand on end. For all its subtlety, “Backbone” isn’t shy about being loud when it needs to – a fire in Chapter 19 builds in intensity to an explosion that feels physically as though it comes together in the air between the speakers, followed by another explosion that creates such pressure that the viewer/listener momentarily feels in danger of being crushed. In Chapter 20, there is an aural point-of-view on the part of a nearly deafened character, with sound coming in faint, indistinct waves after the blast – it is visceral use of audio.
The Spanish-language dialogue is well-mixed with the ambient sound and the score. English subtitles appear automatically, though they can be made to disappear by going into the subtitles section. There are no Spanish subtitles and, according to the packaging, no Spanish closed-captioning. The audio commentary by director Del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro focuses largely on imagery and shooting techniques (as is usually the case when a director of photography is involved), with an upbeat mood and lots of anecdotes. Del Toro is a particularly charming companion as he and Navarro hold forth in the center channel, with the soundtrack present but low in the mains.
The commentary is in English, while the making-of segment is in Spanish with English subtitles. The storyboard comparison segments use the entire sound system in sync on the footage that goes with the storyboards (the cartoonish drawings provide humorous contrast with the scary end result).
“The Devil’s Backbone” is powerfully eerie and thought-provoking. Fans of horror and drama alike should not miss it.