The Devil’s Backbone (2001) Movie Review

Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” wants to be an old-fashioned ghost story, but it’s really just old-fashioned, with some excellent special effects making intermittent appearances to liven things up. For its first 50 minutes or so, “Backbone” plays out like a generic ghost story, with all the filmmaking conventions of the genre followed to the letter.

There’s the usual slow pans to reveal the ghost; the ghost that appears behind a character; and of course, the now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t trick, where a character sees a ghost, is distracted by something offscreen, only to look back and the ghost is gone! (Sigh. I really wish someone would retire this particular gimmick.) Because the film handles its ghost elements so poorly, “Backbone” loses any right to call itself “scary.” Director/co-writer Guillermo (“Blade 2”) might have fare better if he had chosen to make “Backbone” a dramatic film with some supernatural elements instead.

The film is about an orphan name Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who is sent to live at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere during a time of national crisis in Spain. Carlos’ father is dead, but the boy doesn’t know. The orphanage is run by a one-legged matriarch (Marisa Paredes), a scientist who pines for the matriarch, and a young tough guy name Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Jacinto, a former orphan, has an ulterior motive for staying at the orphanage; besides sleeping with the matriarch and another woman, Jacinto is also looking for gold hidden at the school. Oh, and a ghost is lurking about.

The movie is a period film, but the era or time frame is never established. As a result, anyone unfamiliar with Spanish history won’t have a clue what the hell is going on, or why there is supposedly a “civil war” taking place in the background. I am prone to believe that the movie takes place during World War II, but the events that takes place offscreen doesn’t seem to confirm this notion. The film’s main location is the run-down orphanage, and much of the action takes place in, outside, and around its many corridors and rooms.

At one point, a character mentions that there are Chinese, Canadian, and British soldiers fighting against “Reds” — which I take to mean communists — in the rest of the country. The film completely fails to introduce me to its world, leaving me to wonder why the movie bothered to introduce these excess baggages in the first place if it didn’t intend to follow up on it. Why not just ignore the background events completely, and focus entirely on the orphanage as if it existed outside of time?

“Backbone” spends its first 50 minutes following Carlos as he tries to adjust to the school. Besides being haunted by the ghost of a boy who had died there, Carlos has to survive the oldest boy, who has his own secrets regarding the ghost. Young Fernando Tielve gives an okay performance as Carlos, but to tell you the truth, whenever the boys get together I had trouble picking Carlos out. Inigo Garces, on the other hand, gives an outstanding performance as Jaime, the oldest boy.

Although “Backbone” fails to scare, its more mature storylines (for example: Carmen (the matriarch) and her affair with young Jacinto, plus her emotional attachment to the lovelorn Casares) are quite interesting. But this also brings to light another important failure. That is, Eduardo Noriega’s Jacinto is simply not old enough, or nasty enough, to be the movie’s chief villain. The film would have us believe Jacinto could terrorize the whole orphanage, but the character (and actor) is neither very imposing nor forceful enough to make us believe this. Oftentimes Jacinto just looks like a young kid posing as a villain — or as an adult, for that matter.

One of the reasons why “Backbone” lacks any ability to scare is the appearance of the ghost. The ghost, a young boy, appears very early on, and almost immediately we see what he looks like. And what does he look like? A kid in white face paint, that’s what. In fact, the only interesting aspect of the ghost is not the ghost himself, but rather a nifty special effect that has blood floating out of a gash in the ghost’s head, as well as water-like vibrations in the air that surrounds the ghost (who died in water).

In all honesty, “The Devil’s Backbone” is scarier when it was a 1-minute trailer, which pounded home that this was a ghost story. “Backbone,” the movie, fails to live up to that brief snippet.

Guillermo del Toro (director) / Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Munoz (screenplay)
CAST: Eduardo Noriega …. Jacinto
Marisa Paredes …. Carmen
Federico Luppi …. Casares
Ínigo Garc’s …. Jaime
Fernando Tielve …. Carlos
Irene Visedo …. Conchita

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