Throwback Thursday: The Haunting Brilliance of The Devil’s Backbone

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

After studio interference on 1997’s film Mimic, director Guillermo del Toro decided he wanted to get back to his roots a bit. He convinced director Pedro Almodovar to independently produce his next film, a ghost story set during the Spanish civil war—2001’s The Devil’s Backbone.

The Devil's Backbone theatrical poster featuring the main characters

The Devil’s Backbone Theatrical Poster

In a rural area of Spain is a small underfunded orphanage run by Carmen and Dr. Casares. It’s 1939 and the war is in its final year. Because of the war, the orphanage is taking in more orphans with less resources. A new orphan, Carlos, is dropped into their care. He initially tussles with the orphanage bully, but they soon become friends, and Carlos starts to find out more about the history of the orphanage—and who the mysterious boy he keeps running into is. The Devil’s Backbone is a gothic ghost story that definitely brings the scary, but there’s more to it than that.

Del Toro has an amazing gift for giving his monsters sympathy. Usually the evil in his films doesn’t originate from monsters, but from people. It’s a theme that repeatedly shows up in his work, from Cronos to the Hellboy films, and of course, Pan’s Labyrinth. This time sympathy lies with the ghost that Carlos discovers as he digs deeper to find out what happened and to come to grips with his own fear. The film is not only about the loss of innocence for Carlos, but for Spain as a whole. Surprisingly—and you’ll understand this when you watch it—the movie has the saddest and happiest ending a film could possibly have.

Run-down, abandoned building

When you were a kid would you have hung out here by yourself?

The Devil’s Backbone follows the tenants of gothic horror with an innocent hero, a running element of oppressive fear, and nighttime journeys of exploration. It also focuses a color palette on sepia tones, to give it a historical feel, and omits the color red, so that when the red does show up it stands out even more. There’s a rustiness to the film; an intentional effect from del Toro. He shows the oxidation of metal and the world around it repeatedly.

A boy alone in a dark room with pots and other misc. storage

Oxidation anyone?

In the latest Criterion release of the film, there’s a great 20 minute documentary where del Toro discusses all of the work and thought that went into the ghost. There’s a method and reasoning for everything that shows up on screen. He even discusses one of the big reveals and the reasons for the color choices of the background in association with the ghost. It’s very informative, but definitely wait until after viewing the film to watch it.

Boy looking down long dark hallway with silhouette of child in doorway at the end

Seriously, why are kids so creepy?

The Devil’s Backbone begins and ends with a voice-over monologue asking the question, “what is a ghost?” It has an entirely different meaning at the start of the film than it does at the end, and adds a layer of complexity to both the story and our viewing of it.

When del Toro went to create Pan’s Labyrinth, he wanted to make a tonal companion piece to the Devil’s Backbone and I think he succeeded remarkably. There are a number of parallels between the films, and a certain flow when watching both that add to each other. While Pan’s Labyrinth has gained the majority of vocal support, don’t overlook this original ghost story.

 This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. I would recommend the recent Criterion version, especially if you are into “making of” featurettes. It is currently available via Netflix rental and streaming right now, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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