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From comic book films like “Hellboy” to the blockbuster action of “Pacific Rim” to the majestic fantasy of his masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” Guillermo Del Toro has proven himself to be one of the best genre directors of the 21st Century. It was certainly difficult to pick one film for Del Toro for the book as most of his films have some horror element. Yes, even his Academy Award-winning feature “The Shape of Water” has a touch of horror about it even although it is mainly a romantic-fantasy.
Del Toro frequent mixing of genre also makes it difficult to establish which of his films you consider to be horror. From his 21st Century filmography, there is two that stand out as being horror films this film and “Crimson Peak.” Between these two it was easy to pick which one should be included on the list. Your writer here would like to state before continuing that I consider “Crimson Peak” to be nowhere near as bad as many people claim. There is much fun to be had with that films brand of overblown Gothic horror, and performance-wise Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston make for an impressive triumvirate. However, suffice to say it is nowhere near as good as “The Devil’s Backbone.”
Tragic to think then the movie was nearly never made. The reason for this was partly that Del Toro was considering giving up filmmaking after his bruising first Hollywood experience on the Weinstein produced “Mimic.” On that movie, he frequently clashed with Harvey and Bob Weinstein and felt the film had been taken out from under him. The other reason was he could not getting fund for the story in its original form (then set during the Mexican Revolution) which he pitched to the Mexican Film Institute. The film institute rejected it on the grounds it was “too big” of a film. The movie was however saved with the intervention of Pedro Almovodar. Almovodar had admired Del Toro’s work and had passingly said to the director if he ever wanted to make a film in Spain he would produce. In 1997, Del Toro “took a chance and wrote to Pedro and said, ‘Remember that conversation we had?’”.. He did indeed, and the rest as they say is his history.
The change of filming location did not alter the plot too much, but the backdrop of the story did move from being the Mexican Revolution to the Spanish Civil War. The plot focuses on Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12-year-old boy who finds himself at a leftist orphanage following the death of his father. Carlos soon discovers that the orphanage is haunted and hides some dark secrets.
Given a quick synopsis “The Devils Backbone” may seem like a regular ghost story but this is Del Toro we are talking about and as is usual with his films things are not that straightforward. Far from being your regulation haunted house pic, this films mixes horror with drama, coming-of-age and Western elements with John Ford’s “The Searchers” being one of Del Toro’s touchstones during the film. The Western influence is strong throughout with many of the outdoor shots being composed like a Western, and the orphanage itself is made to look like one of those barricaded forts seen in so many Westerns.
Like with many a Del Toro it is not the supposed monster, in this case, the ghost that is the villain here but human cruelty, the cruelest character being Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Even this character though is not without his sympathies. His actions are frequently despicable and grow more so as the film goes so you actively cheer on his demise, but there are also times you can see Jacinto is a man still viciously lashing out against festering childhood wounds. That is one of the critical strengths of the movie all the key players are given psychological depth and believable motivations in a way often missing in mainstream horror.
Jacinto not the ghost child Santi (Andreas Munoz) may be the real threat in the movie, but that does not mean the ghost doesn’t look creepy, far from it. The design of Santi is very creepy indeed with his ashen white complexion (inspired by Sadako in “Ringu”), cracked porcelain-like face and the blood that emanates from a head wound like a mist. There also some eerily atmospheric scenes involving the ghost before we, the audience, realise he does not pose a threat. Particularly in an early scene where Carlos first catches sight of him in lower reaches of the Orphanage building.
As well as the design of the ghost being outstanding the overall design of the movie is equally gorgeous and gothic. The film’s budget was actually only 3-4 million Euros, but from the look of it, you would imagine that the budget was far higher than that which is a testament to both Del Toro as a filmmaker and the skill of his crew.
The design is not the only outstanding element though as there also many great performances here. Notably from Del Toro favourite Federico Lupe as the kindly Professor Casare. Also in fine form is Marissa Paredes as head of the orphanage Carmen, Eduardo Noriega as the aforementioned Jacinto as well as Fernando Tielves who is excellent as the young protagonist Carlos.
Upon release the film was not met with quite the same adulation as its sister picture “Pans Labyrinth“ (Which Del Toro recommends you watch with this film) it was still met overwhelmingly positive reviews and was a modest box office success. As mentioned earlier Del Toro’s career would go from strength to strength from here culminating, of course, in his Oscar win for “The Shape of Water.” However, this film still ranks as one of the visionary filmmakers finest and up until recently was the one that Del Toro himself cited as his favourite amongst his works.