The Devil’s Backbone

“Que es un fantasma?” “What is a ghost?
A tragedy doomed to repeat itself again and again…?”

With these opening words, Guillermo del Toro’s (“Hellboy”) frightening and powerful ghost story, set during the last years of the Spanish Civil War begins. And with those words come images of war, of murder, of hopelessness and tragedy, all set in an isolated orphanage near Madrid, Spain. A huge bomb, dropped by General Francisco Franco’s right-wing forces, lands in the courtyard of the orphanage but does not detonate. It remains, with gaily-colored ribbons attached, as a constant reminder of what is going on in a world far-removed from the orphanage. The world inside the orphanage, however, is like a microcosm of the war-torn country – the orphaned boys, all children of left-wing Republican fighters, fight amongst themselves when they are not being tormented by Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega, “Open Your Eyes”), brought to the orphanage as a child but now the caretaker with a particular interest in keeping the boys away from the storage room beneath the kitchen. The headmaster, Professor Casares (Federico Luppi, “Cronos”), who is in love with the stern but caring headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes, “Life is Beautiful”) but cannot express his feelings. And Carmen herself, who has Jacinto as her lover even though she is ashamed of the fact that she has a metal prosthetic leg. And finally, the ghost, Santi, the One Who Sighs, a student who disappeared under mysterious circumstances but haunts the orphanage. Into this turmoil comes young 10-year old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who has no idea he is to be left behind by the friends of his deceased father who bring him.

Del Toro tells a straightforward story of the everyday life of young boys, with their comic books, their pranks on fellow students, trying to pay attention in class, drawing pictures of naked women. But there is the sinister element as well both in the guise of Jacinto, who would like nothing better than to beat up every kid who gets in his way and Santi (Junio Valverde), the creepiest ghost seen in a movie in a long time. Poor Carlos is assigned the bed Santi once had and strange things almost immediately begin happening: a water jug is spilled and damp footprints can be seen leading away from the pool of water, the corridors of the dormitory at night resound with the faint sighing of Santi and when Carlos and Jaime (Inigo Garces), the school troublemaker, go to refill the water jug, Jaime leaves Carlos behind in the kitchen and Carlos goes exploring. Beneath the kitchen is a huge storage room with a swimming pool-like cistern in the middle. It is while Carlos is checking all this out that he meets Santi, face to face, is warned, “Many of you will die” and flees in mortal terror in one of many heart-pounding moments in the film.

Afterwards, Carlos decides to find out the secret of Santi and what happened to him. But at the same time, Jacinto has turned traitor, knowing of a large cache of gold hidden in the orphanage to aid in the Republican war effort. There is an amazing scene of devastating tragedy, another of betrayal involving Jacinto’s girlfriend and Jaime’s secret crush, Conchita (Irene Visedo) and one of incredible bravery by Dr. Casares. Secrets are revealed and vengeance is achieved but in an applause-worthy way.

Del Toro’s cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro (“Spy Kids”, “Cronos”), filmed this movie is shades of brown and gold for the exterior shots to get across the heat and aridness of the orphanage while the interior shots are darker, shot in shades of blue and gray. The visual effects for Santi are amazing – you just have to see it. The Special Edition DVD, which is the one to get, has commentary from Del Toro as well as deleted scenes, a “Making of” documentary and storyboard comparisons. The movie is in Spanish with subtitles.

And as for the question of what is “the devil’s backbone”, Dr. Casares explains it best to Carlos in a rather sickening scene but simply put, it is an old-fashioned term for the condition, “spina bifida”, where the spine grows outside the body. The folklore el espinazo del diablo creates is best left, again, for Dr. Casares to explain.

As he also does the question, “Que es un fantasma?” at the end of the film.

Sweet dreams.

Official Score