The Devil's Backbone (2002)
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Review Date: June 27, 2002
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Writer: Guillermo Del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Munoz
Producers: Guillermo Del Toro, Pedro Almodovar
Fernando Tielve
Inigo Garces
Eduardo Noriega
Taking place during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, an orphanage full of kids is abuzz about a "ghost" that several of them can hear and see strolling about. As the kids try to make contact with the apparition, the war front approaches their retreat and a decision must be made on their next move. Oh, and you say that there's a whole bunch of gold stashed in their safe as well? Spanish frights ensue...
Drenched in atmosphere and rich in narrative, this film plays in Spanish but delivers in the language of spookiness with an engaging setting, many great relationships, a mystery and ghostly apparitions to boot. By the way, there aren't many films that can top the fright that I felt after watching THE OTHERS the first time around, but the first half of this picture comes somewhat close. With a slow pace, creepy mood, strange happenings and developed characters, this film pulled me into its web of intrigue, and really gave me a sense of the time and place, as well as a feel for the people caught up in this very odd period of their lives. The two lead kids, Fernando Tielve and Inigo Garces, were especially good, and I note that because I'm generally not a fan of kids in movies (they either turn out to be too dumb or too smart, but these dudes were right on). I also liked the more adult relationship established between the doctor of the orphanage and the principal, both of whom obviously held their own secrets, but also shared one for one another. Unfortunately, Del Toro decided to take the story another way during its second half, where the whole "ghost" aspect that was established during the film's first half, almost disappears. It's not a complete turnaround though, in fact, I can't say that I was entirely disappointed with how it all concluded, just that it felt different from the beginning, which had staunchly set its barometer to creepy.

It just felt a little more like a "bad guy vs pesky kids" film at that point, and even though the directing, the acting and the mood were still part of the overall picture, the sense of continuity seemed disturbed and took me out of the proceedings somewhat. Granted, it all came back to connect in the end, but I would have rather the film kept up its eerie feel, the whole way through. But enough about what I would have liked to have seen...the film still works as it is, and a lot of it has to do with director Guillermo Del Toro who creates a palpable setting, directs some pretty wicked shots (the keyhole scare is a classic) and lays the creativity on the story, which is very well written and manages to successfully combine various characters, all of whom have their own believable gripes and motivations. The score was also moody and ideal for the melancholic tale and the few special effects, most of which had to do with the supernatural boy walking about, were original and effective. Yes, there is plenty of symbolism under the basic groundwork of the story as well, but most of that resonated with me only after the film was firmly put to rest. The opening credit sequence was also very moody, setting things up for a ghostly time. It's not a film that the 1-2-3 moviegoers will likely enjoy because it is quite leisurely paced and methodical, but if ghosts, inventive legends, wicked atmosphere and subtitles do it for you...this export is sure to get a rise out of a few of the little hairs on the back of your neck. For me, I enjoyed it on the whole but thought the second half lost a bit of its "edge" and momentum. Still a solid recommendation for anyone looking to curl up with their loved one in unpleasant anticipation.
(c) 2018 Berge Garabedian

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