Chris's Disc Reviews

The Devil's Backbone/El Espinazo del Diablo (2002)

A review of the DVD release by Chris Harris, who has been going to the movies for half a century, so he's seen quite a few films in his time.


Disk format: DVD

Region: 2

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Inigo Garces

This film is from the man who brought us Kronos, Blade 2 and Hellboy... As a result, it has del Toro's trademarks: camera shots looking down on the action through falling rain and a strange obsession with the macabre.

Set in the Spanish Civil War, it tells the story of a group of orphans living in a school run by communist sympathisers. They are haunted by the ghost of "the one who sighs." When a new boy arrives, he begins to unravel the mystery of what created the ghost, but a chain of events has already been set in motion that will have horrific consequences for all concerned...

I hadn't really got any expectations of the film from seeing the trailer, so I wasn't prepared for the lush atmospherics del Toro got from a single location with a fairly mundane setting. After five minutes I was oblivious of the fact that I was watching Spanish dialogue with subtitles - the film draws you in, grabs you and doesn't let go. There's a sense of growing doom that builds from the outset, and the tension increases to an almost unbearable level. Even without the ghosts, the Spanish Civil War was not a good place to be.

I wasn't prepared for the quality of the acting, either - the children are neither cute nor irritating, and give accomplished performances way beyond their years. Watching the director at work with them on the "making of" video in the DVD's special features makes it clear that del Toro's very gifted as a director. He knows exactly what he wants and is capable of communicating it to the people he works with.

As well as the "making of" documentary I've just mentioned, the extra features on the DVD include some special effects breakdowns showing how the computer-generated magic was achieved. It's quite sad that this level of technological achievement is almost becoming commonplace, but there are only so many passes through wireframe, particle system, shading and final rendering you can take. Still, the film looks gorgeous, and for the most part the special effects are subtle rather than in-your-face.

The film's message? Somewhat bleak. It's not supernatural entities that we have to be wary of: it's what we're capable of doing to each other. As a result, it's a very uncomfortable film to watch in places. In fact, the only character in the film who is sympathetic is the ghost.

If you like your horror movies to be visceral, but thought-provoking all the same, then this one's for you.

Chris's rating: Four stars, but not for the faint-hearted.

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