by Billy Russell
“What is a ghost?” ponders Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), who runs an orphanage for children whose parents have abandoned them or died in the Spanish Civil War. “A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
Carlos (Fernando Tielve), an orphan, is taken to the orphanage owned by Dr. Casares at the film’s beginning by his tutor and left there. Carlos chases after the car, only to see it grow smaller and smaller and finally gone, only a trail of dust on the dirt road as a reminder of it. Dr. Casares takes Carlos into his care—a kind and gentle old man. He assures him he will be safe there, and he is…from the war, at least. Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), the local bully, takes an instant dislike to him. At the center of the orphanage, in their courtyard, is a reminder of the frailty of mortality: a bomb that had fallen from the sky and landed in the mud but never detonated. It stands tall and ominously, like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There’s another dark secret that the grounds hold: the mystery of what happened to Santi, a young boy who died there. His ghostly apparition, with blood floating about the air around his head, is seen stalking around the dormitory hallways at night.
Santi whispers one night that he wants Jacinto, the caretaker and groundskeeper.
The Devil’s Backbone is pure melodrama, and I mean that as the highest form of compliment. A ghost story such as this is less a horror movie, and more of a gothic drama with love triangles, betrayal, and murder, all set against the backdrop of a terrible war with no end in sight. The ghost of Santi is a terrifying sight to see, if only because it’s something that doesn’t make sense within our natural world. The way Guillermo del Toro handles the story, blending the childlike wonder he shares with the orphans at the center, the fear and terror of man’s inhumanity to man and the supernatural specter who roams the corridors at night is absolutely masterful.
Seeing del Toro spin a yarn is an incredible sight. A fatal mistake a movie like this might make would be to focus on the horror aspects of the story, to turn a basic ghost story into a haunted house story. Audiences can be impatient, so it might feel irresistible to add spice by having the ghostly figure bang pots and pans and try to strike fear into Carlos or the other boys. But Santi never does. He’s not a creature of malevolence. He’s a creature of sadness. Santi is a ghost that exudes fear itself, fear of what happened in the past and unable to let go, but not one that tries to spread fear about.
Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) and his ongoing affair with Dr. Casares’ wife Carmen (Marisa Paredes) in order to get closer to a stash of gold they’re keeping leads to an explosive betrayal, with many left dead in its aftermath. Both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth have this interesting composition between the supernatural, scary-looking world and with the actual real world which might not necessarily be scary-looking, but is much, much deadlier…possibly because it’s real, and reality is much harsher than we give it credit for, sometimes. On the audio commentary of The Devil’s Backbone, Guillermo del Toro references the way he shot the violence in the movie, which is important. He’s done “fun” violence before, like with Blade II or the Hellboy movies, but here it’s shown as-is. It’s ugly, and it’s difficult to watch. There is no enjoyment in the scenes where someone is in pain.
The way the film re-emphasizes its beginning question of what is a ghost at the end and the way it ambiguously answers its own question and leaves on a striking image, is just amazing. Some people might be turned off if they’re expecting a ghoulish story dripping with chills and carnage; it’s not that kind of movie. Instead, it’s a reflection on the filmmakers’ thoughts on life and death and on the history of violence in our world. It’s a movie to invigorate our imaginations and to think about the reality of horror—not as some ghost from the netherworld, but as a fascist government takeover, as it is in our real-world every single day.