Welcome back to my regular posting schedule. I hope. I finally sat down and watched Guillermo del Toro’s 2001 gothic horror movie, The Devil’s Backbone/El Espinazo del Diablo. The movie predates Pan’s Labyrinth by five years but it feels like the movies are meant to be a pair. They’re both set during the Spanish Civil War and both are about children on the cusp of adolescence in a world where adults aren’t necessarily trustworthy.
The movie opens with an unknown narrator discussing what makes a ghost. Is a ghost a strong emotion? A moment preserved in time? Someone with something left undone? Or something dead that appears to be living? This narration is happening while you see what you realize is a boy drowning.
This movie follows Carlos (Fernando Tielve) as he arrives at an orphanage.
He thinks his stay is meant to be temporary but he’ll be there for a while. The orphanage is full of secrets. This includes the ghost that he spots on his first day.
The administrators of the orphanage, Carmen (Marisa Paredes, who played Marilla in The Skin I Live In) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi, who was Jesus Gris in Cronos) are leftist sympathizers with a stash of gold hidden in a safe.
Can I tell you how happy I was when I realized that Marisa Paredes and Federico Luppi were in this movie? I was also a little creeped out that Federico Luppi doesn’t seem to have aged much between Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. I suspect that he’s a wizard.
Anyway, Carlos is woken up in the middle of the night. There’s a creepy shadow on a curtain but the bed next to his is empty.
The ghost, nicknamed “the one who sighs,” then knocks over a water-pitcher. The bully, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), challenges Carlos to refill the pitcher by sneaking into the kitchen. Carlos accepts if Jaime will come too. The ghost is noisy, though, and alerts Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a former orphan and currently a kind of handyman, that someone’s in the kitchen.
Carlos hides by the basement cistern where he hears the ghost say, “Many more will die.”
Carlos wants to find out who the ghost is and suspects that it’s Santi (Junio Valverde), another orphan who disappeared the day an unexploded bomb landed in the orphanage’s courtyard.
Carlos asks Dr. Casares about the ghost and Casares responds that he’s a man of science but the times they’re living in breed superstition and then tells Carlos about “the devil’s backbone,” a slang-term for spina bifida.
Spina bifida is a congenital developmental disorder wherein the neural tube fails to close. There are varying degrees of the illness, some people are born anencephalic (without the tops of their skulls), while others are born with their spinal cords exposed. Ultimately, it’s something left undone. This relates to the movie because isn’t a ghost something with work undone?
Anyway, throughout all this, Jacinto has been having sex with Carmen, hoping to steal the key to the safe and the gold. When Dr. Casares witnesses Carlos’ tutor being executed by the army, he hopes to take the children away from the escalating war. Unfortunately, Jacinto has decided to blow up the safe and destroys much of the orphanage, hurting several orphans and Dr. Casares, and killing Carmen. Dr. Casares stands guard, waiting for Jacinto to return, and promises not to abandon the orphans, because he’s left too many things in his life unfinished.
That’s really all I can say without giving away major spoilers. I’d really prefer if you saw the movie yourself. I can tell you that by the end of the movie you’ll know who narrated the beginning, in fact, the end narration bookends the beginning. You’ll also know exactly what happened to the drowning boy and who he is.
The movie isn’t as visually splendid as Pan’s Labyrinth but it feels more personal. I also think it establishes del Toro’s love of filming underground, labyrinthine places.
The movie isn’t going to give you nonstop scares but it maintains a constant tension. I count it as horror because the ghost is pretty alarming. He’s not a friendly ghost of a child and even in the afterlife he bears the wounds of what killed him. I purposely didn’t post any closeups of the ghost because I wanted you to be startled when you see him and when you recognize his wounds.
This movie left me feeling melancholy and I figure that’s because the theme of things undone is such a big theme in the movie. Whether it’s the one who sighs wanting people to find out what happened to him or Dr. Casares impotence, people are at odds with each other and find their goals unachieved. The only hope that the movie really offers is that these orphans will grow up and be better than the grownups around them.