Back in 2001, everyone thought of Guillermo del Toro as a horror director because of Cronos
and Mimic. The Devil's Backbone is a ghost story, so it got compared to The Sixth Sense and especially The Others
, which is another well-regarded 2001 ghost story that's technically Spanish. These days though, it feels more like a companion piece to Pan's Labyrinth
. Del Toro has called the two films siblings, with this being the brother and Pan's being the sister.
For a start, it isn't trying very hard to be horror. Wikipedia calls it a "Spanish gothic thriller film" and that's not a bad way to think about it. Admittedly it has a white-faced ghost inspired by J-horror and Ringu, but he's not the plot. The Sixth Sense and The Others
are built around their phantoms and their twist endings, but this is primarily about some probably orphaned children and the people trying to look after them during the Spanish Civil War. The dead kid isn't the enemy, although he is creepy. Walk for a day to the nearest town and you'll find people being lined up against walls and shot. You've got adults, gold and sexual relationships. As in Pan's Labyrinth
, it's the real world that's providing the real monsters, with one character in some ways arguably being worse than the similar son-of-a-bitch in that later film. At least Captain Vidal was in charge of conducting a war and I think believed he was doing the right thing for Spain.
This is a smaller-scale film, but they're similar in many ways. There's not much difference in the quality of their gore, for a start, despite this one having a lower body count and no torture.
Obviously it has lots of child actors, but fortunately they're all excellent. You'll never think of them as child actors. Instead you'll be thinking things like "have they really not told him his father's dead?", "was he going to eat that slug?" and "small boys really are utter bastards, aren't they?" The two lead boys here get cameos as guerrilla soldiers in Pan's Labyrinth
, incidentally, with the dates for the two films being synchronised. The Devil's Backbone (2001) is set in 1939, while Pan's Labyrinth
(2006) is set in 1944. That's impressively precise. I suspect del Toro thinks of them as the same characters. Meanwhile the adults include the adorable Federico Luppi (also in Cronos
) as Dr Casares, the old doctor who has the best reply you've ever seen when asked if he believes in ghosts. Heartbreakingly, he's also an optimist. "The war isn't over. England or France might still intervene." Other actors include "not just a pretty boy" Eduardo Noriega and Marisa Paredes, who's worked for directors like Pedro Almodovar and Roberto Benigni. The performances are flawless, I think, including the boys.
It doesn't look as ravishing as Pan's Labyrinth
, but it's still got a gorgeous colour palette and there are some subtle touches like the scene that starts to look as if we're underwater. The film's world is more isolated. We're in a little collection of buildings in the middle of nowhere, the kind of sun-bleached place you'd choose to shoot a spaghetti Western. It's atmospheric, anyway.
Obviously this film is less famous than Pan's Labyrinth
. It didn't win any Oscars and I hadn't even heard of it until recently. However it holds up impressively to this daunting comparison and in some ways for me was even the more satisfying film of the two. Pan's Labyrinth
is built on fairy-tale rules and its plotting to me feels slightly arbitrary. Ofelia is so much less powerful than both Captain Vidal and her fantasy world that the story can't really grow from the actions of its apparent protagonist. Thus it smells a tad of authorial fiat. This film on the other hand has a tighter focus and everything's brutally personal for our young hero. The only thing that's ever going to save him and his friends is their own actions. Perhaps it's a metaphor for the struggle against fascism?
I really liked this film. Everything about it works for me, once you've realised that it's trying to be something more subtle and interesting than a bog-standard horror movie. For quite a while I wasn't sure what genre it was even going for. Apparently this was a sixteen-year labour of love for Guillermo del Toro, who put a lot of his personal memories into it. His uncle came back as a ghost, or so he says. Lots of atmosphere - lovely stuff.