Guillermo del Toro is currently known as the guy who made the Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth," the "Hellboy" movies, and came close to directing "The Hobbit."
But way back in in 2001, del Toro made a movie that serves as a sport of ghost-story prequel to "Pan's Labyrinth." With its mysterious specter, innocent hero and a story set during a bloody civil war, "The Devil's Backbone" is a unique kind of horror movie -- it deftly sidesteps the cheap tricks and scares that most ghost stories employ.
Unaware that his father has been killed, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) thinks that he's being left at a remote orphanage only temporarily. Kindly Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) sympathizes with the lonely new boy, but Carlos soon is distracted from his troubles. He keeps seeing shadows, footprints and falling pitchers -- and when he wanders down into the vaulted cellar, he catches a glimpse of a silent ghost with a bleeding head wound. Even worse, the ghost -- which was a boy named Santi -- informs him that many people there will die.
But the most dangerous one at the orphanage is the brutal former-orphan Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who is searching for a cache of hidden gold. As Carlos tries to figure out how Santi died -- and what angry, miserable Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) has to do with it -- the orphanage is suddenly turned into an explosive war zone. As Dr. Casares tries to protect the remaining boys, Carlos discovers the reason Santi died -- and what he wants now.
"The Devil's Backbone" is a movie filled with death: the orphanage is a dying institution in a time of war, filled with orphans and surrounded by sun-burnt grass. It even has a defused torpedo stuck right in the middle of the courtyard. By the time the ghost shows up, it seems like almost a natural part of such a ruined, quietly sorrowful place.
Fortunately Guillermo del Toro avoids cheap scares -- the ghost doesn't make weird noises or leap out at Carlos for no reason. Instead he evokes the fear of a child in a dark, creaky old house who is ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that there's something out there. Also some beautifully creepy visuals, such as blood floating in the air as if it were in water.
But the whole creepy-ghostly-factor is eclipsed about halfway through the movie. After a slow buildup of tension, everything suddenly erupts when Jacinto suddenly reveals his true self. Suddenly we've got explosions, blood, shattered glass, mangled bodies and an all-too human enemy who is slowly closing in. It makes the ghostly Santi seem suddenly very... nonthreatening.
And though the plot seems simple, del Toro spins a spiderweb of interconnected hints and plot threads -- comic books, slug collections, a wooden leg and blood-tinged water all come into play. There's loads of symbolism, and the beautiful scenes (Dr. Casares' final poetry recital to Carmen) are handled just as powerfully as the more gory, ghastly ones (the orphans' final assault).
It's kind of amazing that this was Tielve's movie debut, because he's simply incredible -- his character slides through fear, courage, sorrow and confusion, all with a kind of unshakable innocence. Garcés is equally good; at first he seems like a mere bully, but we gradually see how troubled and guilty he feels over what happened to Santi. Noriega is thoroughly nasty as a greedy, sociopathic thug who cares about nobody except himself (even his fiancee), while Luppi is a kindly, cultured old man who obviously loves the boys as if they were his own.
I can't think of a better movie to receive a Criterion release, and there's a decent showing of material in this new release -- new subtitle translations and film restoration; a booklet by Mark Kermode; audio commentary, video introduction and new interviews with del Toro himself; older interviews; a making-of documentary; storyboards and concept sketches compared to the final film; deleted scenes with commentary; del Toro's notes, and so on.
"The Devil's Backbone" is a haunting kind of ghost story, where the ghost is not the scariest thing you'll see. A powerful, striking movie.