|Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve
Out of all the directors working in the horror genre today, few can match the ambition, imaginativeness and visual beauty of Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker whose effectiveness is defined in part by the amount of wheels simultaneously turning inside of his mind. As those wheels put into motion stories that are as complex and inspiring as they are intimate and palatable, del Toro weaves them into gorgeous cinematic folktales, often times beginning as a different film than the film in the third act as a result of an organically evolved narrative structure. And by infusing these classically-grown stories with modern sensibilities, del Toro exudes a mature understanding of childlike wonder and finds the roots of deep-seeded fears to explore within his films.
del Toro has become a master of exploiting our childhood fears, so much so that his groundbreaking ghost story The Devil’s Backbone has been giving the prestigious Criterion Blu-ray Treatment. Being one of the more quiet and grounded tales del Toro has ever put together, the film is also incredibly horrific and eerie, inspiring dread around every turn while also providing a human story of greed and revenge. The film is easily del Toro’s most straightfaced and terrifying, and with a superb high definition transfer, this astonishing tale can be revisited in a brand new, beautiful fashion.
The Devil’s Backbone tells the story of a young orphan, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who arrives at a orphanage that is harboring gold from Franco’s regime during the Spanish Civil War, using it secretly to fund Republican loyalists. While at the orphanage, Carlos befriends Jaime (Inigo Garces), the orphanage bully, and learns of a ghost of a young boy that haunts the grounds. As Carlos investigates the hauntings, the gold becomes a point of contention between the volatile groundskeeper (Eduardo Noriega) and the administrators of the orphanage (Marisa Paredes and Federico Luppi), with both simultaneous issues intertwining up into a dramatic, shocking crescendo.
Out of del Toro’s filmography, The Devil’s Backbone is one of the most impressive feats, showing off a grander sense of maturity promised within Cronos and fueled by the need for simplicity by the director following a negative Hollywood experience with Mimic. The tale never fully immerses itself into the fantastical but at the same time keeps a sharp and biting sense of allegory throughout, comparing the dueling narratives and adding in mystery as they slowly graft with one another. Furthermore, the script by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Munoz is superb, building tension with a natural elegance that make the comparative moments of drama and emotion all the more satisfying, and is essential to the cohesiveness of the intense moments of horror. Definitely influential on the film is the presence of producer Pedro Almodovar and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, whose sharp, colorful visual style and desire for intimate storytelling helps put the film in a specific, consumable context.
Like most of del Toro’s films, the wonderful technical aspects parallel the great and convincing performances on display, especially with the child actors, whom del Toro can bring out performances from in an almost inimitable consistency. Tielve and Garces are excellent in their roles, almost showing a believable, brotherly investment in one another and creating some of the most intense emotional moments of the film when they are in peril. Likewise, the adults in the picture are stellar, with Cronos star Luppi stepping up his dramatic game tenfold whilst remaining incredibly lighthearted and comforting in his role as the orphanage’s doctor, and Paredes, Noriega and an incredibly affecting Irene Visedo all deliver outstanding performances. But the performance of the picture may lie in Junio Valverde as the ghost, Santi, whose vulnerability is reminiscent of the Universal Monsters of yore but still remains horrifying and physically intimidating despite his childish visage.
Despite the film being very straightforward and simple in structure, the emotional complexity and flawed human relationships of this piece allow the film to fit naturally in del Toro’s wheelhouse. Stripped down to the layers of basic filmmaking needs, del Toro succeeds via resourcefulness and passion, all of which translates onto the screen in a gripping fashion. The film is beautiful, bold and heartbreaking in equal measure, and although the end result may be too bleak for some viewers, the conclusion is above all else logical, which is a fresh breath in a film that frequently scares the living hell out of you.
Once again, Criterion does not disappoint, even with their gold standard of transferred releases. Although some of their previous genre releases have suffered from an excess of grain in their High Definition transfers, The Devil’s Backbone accentuates the grain without marring the image, allowing the gorgeous cinematography from Navarro to look the way it was meant to be seen. This is likely the result of the restored, 2K digital film transfer, personally overseen by del Toro. The colors are vibrant, the sharpness is in tact and there is very little loss from DNR or distracting amount of crush.
The secret winning aspect of this particular release, Criterion takes great care in their audio transfer of The Devil’s Backbone. There is no hiss or marring of the audio track, allowing the smooth, resonating tones of the film to play beautifully through the 5.1 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. One can tell from Luppi’s narration alone that the audio was an incredibly important element for Criterion to nail down, and as expected, the company goes above and beyond.
Criterion loads this set up with an array of amazing special features, many of which feature del Toro himself. Among his contribtions are: a fascinating audio commentary featuring del Toro; a video introduction from an earlier, 2010 release of the film; interviews with del Toro, both new and archival, about his development of the film and the ideas that spawned the project; four contextually satisfying yet unnecessary deleted scenes with optional commentary from del Toro and a personalized English subtitle translation from del Toro himself.
Aside from those features, the package comes with a really great making-of documentary from 2004, entitled ¿Que es un fantasma?; an interactive director’s notebook and a comparison between del Toro’s thumbnail sketches and Carlos Gimenez’s storyboards with the film, with an alternate on-screen presentation of said sketches exclusive to this Blu-ray set; an interview with scholar Sebastian Faber about the accuracy of the film’s portrayal of the Spanish Civil War; the film’s trailer and an essay by critic Mark Kermode. Overall, there is no beating Criterion when it comes to special features.
Tension driven and incredibly immersive while also being frightfully scary, The Devil’s Backbone is still neck and neck with Pan’s Labyrinth as del Toro’s finest work as a filmmaker. While capturing your imagination and encapsulating your fears, both natural and supernatural, Backbone tugs at your heartstrings and defines a genre unto it’s own of Spanish Gothic Cinema. For anyone who has seen this film, they know that a Criterion transfer is a must-buy; For those unfamiliar, this is the best opportunity you’re going to get.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.