War has a profound affect on people’s emotions and thought processes, as the parameters of what we are willing to believe in are stretched in times of great turmoil and upheaval. Renowned Mexican writer/director Guillermo Del Toro has a keen interest in the supernatural, especially when these old horror tropes brush up against the real horrors of war. He examined this contrast brilliantly in “Pan’s Labyrinth” (one of the best films of the 21st century, imho), but he first the literal and figurative demons of war and suffering in 2001’s “The Devil’s Backbone,” a mournful ghost story about, among other things, how other tragedies don’t stop occurring even in times of war.
The conflict being the Spanish Civil War, when Spain was nearly split in half between the fascist Nationalists and the Republicans. As a result, many children whose parents were fighting or were already killed in the effort were sent to orphanages, among them being Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who gets sent to one after the death of his father. But this orphanage, which is located in the Spanish desert, far from civilization but not from the war, has secrets of its own. The headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), already burdened by an artificial leg also has a safe filled with gold belonging to the defeated Republicans, which is of great interest to the nefarious handyman Jacinto (a chilling Eduardo Noriega). There is also the upstanding and decent Dr. Cesares (Frederico Luppi, who also appeared in Del Toro’s “Cronos”), who still has a strange fascination with deformed fetuses, particularly those born with the “devil’s backbone,” a horrific deformation that results in children being born with their spinal cords on the outside. Along with the unexploded warhead in the courtyard and the constant bullying by Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), Carlos is also haunted by the ghost of Jaime’s dead brother Santi (Junio Valverde) whose death may be more mysterious than anyone realizes. The adults who run the school have enough secrets and tragedy in their lives to fill the home’s spacious halls.
Del Toro’s films have a unique energy to them; he likes tossing different genres into the air with old-fashioned horror and mystery tropes, and “Devil’s Backbone” is all the more richer and substantive as a result. It’s a ghost story, a coming-of-age adventure, a murder mystery and a bleak document of war-time life in the 1940’s, and as a result this movie is quite spirited, despite the apparent bleakness of its story. That’s thanks, in part, to the elegant, precise camerawork, the gorgeous cinematography by Guillermo Navarro, the diverse score by Javier Navarrete, and the balanced script by Del Toro, Antonio Trashhorras and David Muñoz.
That balance is crucial because the film is built on all the different responses to war and its root; human cruelty, among the living and the dead. Literally manifesting itself as the defused missile in their midst and the ghosts that haunt the place, it is inescapable. Cesares (given warmth and strength by Luppi in a great performance) justifies everything with science in logic, such as using the rum he keeps his dead fetuses as an elixir and monetary source. Carmen has already lost someone, and she deals with her guilt, emotional and physical pain by running to the arms of Jacinto, who’s soul is consumed by greed and violence. Carlos (Tielve is also excellent) is pursued by the restless spirit of Santi, but everyone in this movie is haunted by something.
As we learn more about Santi’s death and the motivations of all these characters as enemies much closer to home than any army close in, “The Devil’s Backbone” grows in power. While it does not have the shattering emotional gut-punch that “Labyrinth” did, this film is a powerful statement on wartime conflict in its own way. While the world burns, other evils don’t stop for anything. The other ghosts are just as restless. Del Toro is a master at crafting suspense and letting his visual imagination run wild, but he’s a consummate storyteller first and foremost. This is a grim fable, but it’s never dour; it just doesn’t forget that there are just as many trouble souls among the living.