The Devil's Backbone (El Espinozo del Diablo) Made in: Spain Language: Spanish Director: Guillermo del Toro Starring: Fernando Tielve, Eduardo Noriega, Íñigo Garcés, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Junio Valverde, Irene Visedo Year: 2001
Synopsis: The year is 1939, and the bloody Spanish Civil War is coming to an end. Ten year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), whose father was killed in a battle against Franco's Nationalists, is taken by his tutor to the secluded Santa Lucia orphanage.
The orphanage is run by head mistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes), and the kind Doctor Casares (Federico Luppi), both of whom are sympathizers to the Republican cause opposing Franco and his not-so-merry men. Although he makes friends, Carlos is also confronted with elements that are far less pleasant, such as a bully named Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) and Santa Lucia's sadistic caretaker, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega).
An unexploded bomb half-buried in the orphanage's schoolyard is always something to keep an eye on, but what frightens Carlos the most is the ghost of a former orphan named Santi (Junio Valverde).
Santi often visits Carlos, frequently leading him to the murky well in the orphanage's creepy cellar. The ghost repeatedly whispers an enigmatic prophecy, telling Carlos that "many will die." As the Nationalists close in, the interwoven tangle of secrets at Santa Lucia begins unraveling...and it appears more and more likely that Santi's dire predictions will come true...
The Good: The Devil's Backbone is an imaginative, fascinating thriller populated with complex characters. The hair-raising ghost elements are well done, and the digital effects enhance (rather than distract from) many of the scenes.
Director Guillermo Del Toro makes effective use of the story's time period by commenting on the issues of the Spanish Civil War through allegorical imagery. Although isolated from the battlefield, the conflict going on inside the orphanage is presented with an intensity that reflects many realities of that war.
The Devil's Backbone has a very authentic feel and seems to convincingly capture the time period in which it takes place. Set mainly in one location, it's a focused piece that also offers some interesting philosophical musings on death.
The Bad: I thought Eduardo Noriega's character could have been better developed. There's a history and psychological complexity to the cruel Jacinto that is touched upon, but not quite explored deeply enough.
Who would like this movie: Fans of foreign films and ghost stories will appreciate The Devil's Backbone. The story is easy to follow, and overall, the film is very well-paced and intelligent. It'll greatly help if you're familiar with the Spanish Civil War, so do a quick history review before watching it.