Many horror films are upfront about what a monster is — it’s the demon infesting that haunted doll, the monster you brought to life using pieces from dead bodies, or the living dead that stalk the streets — but on rare occasion you’re presented with something you believe should be a monster, yet is not and the true horror lies in something much more personal and real — humanity. No director does this better than Guillermo Del Toro, whose outspoken love affair with the monsters hiding under the bed has spawned so many great films such as The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth, and our film today, The Devil’s Backbone.
This 2001 Spanish horror film is directed by Guillermo Del Toro and written by Guillermo Del Toro and Antonio Trashorras & David Munoz. The Devil’s Backbone is the story of young Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a 12-year-old boy, who finds himself abandoned at a decaying boys’ orphanage and, immediately upon arriving, witnesses the ghost of a young boy. This initial encounter kicks off a mystery to uncover who this apparition is and what secrets the walls may be hiding surrounding his death.
If you’ve ever seen Guillermo’s most well known (and beloved) film, Pan’s Labyrinth, you’ll notice a lot of similarities between the two of them. As the predecessor to Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro sows the seeds that would blossom into that brilliant film here, as the films are thematically connected. We have the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for The Devil’s Backbone, tearing Carlos from his family, and creating a certain desperation in everyone. Some struggle on the front lines, but many face challenges at home. War doesn’t just affect the soldiers, it affects the country as a whole and it’s here, in that world of the everyday people dealing with that war, that we find our story in The Devil’s Backbone.
The Devil’s Backbone unfolds like a fairy tale; it has a sort of magical feeling to it aided by its rich warm colors, the score, and narration that opens and closes the film. As I mentioned above, it’s one of those films that subverts your expectations about what and whom to fear. Sure, Santi (Junio Valverde) comes off as just another terrifying ghost at the beginning but you quickly realize that he’s not the one to fear. There’s another far more sinister force at work in the orphanage. Where Santi wants vengeance for his wrongful death, he also tries to warn Carlos about the impending danger the true monster poses — the groundskeeper, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), whose bitterness and greed proves far more deadly than any minor fright from Santi could ever be. But our sweet Santi is more integral to the heart of the plot than just to foil Jacinto. Santi reminds us that we must listen to the past and heeds its warning or we’ll make the same mistakes (or worse ones). Honor our past failings in order to create a better future.
There are easily so many layers to pick apart with this film and that’s one of the beautiful things about it. Sure, the cinematography is great. So is the acting but it’s the heart of the story that makes it so interesting to watch. I might be stuck with the image of Santi walking toward Carlos, blood floating around him, for a long time, but it’s the thematic elements that will keep me thinking and turning the story over in my head. How many times does it have to be said, in so many different ways, before we learn our lessons? The real monsters in the world aren’t ghosts or vampires, they’re humans and the terrible things they’re capable of. How long must we go before we learn from our past mistakes?
If you’re a fan of Del Toro and haven’t seen this gem yet, definitely check it out. It’s got so much to offer as a film and though it’s not as lauded as its sister piece, The Devil’s Backbone has more than earned its place in The Criterion Collection for everything it puts on the screen that lingers for days and days after viewing.