THE DEVILS BACKBONE
(El Espinoza del Diablo)
Guillermo Del Toro has drawn clear inspiration for The Devil's Backbone from The Sixth Sense (1999) and its central image of a child able to see and communicate with the dead. The makeup effects on the ghost boy certainly make him look unsettlingly spooky and genuinely dead. Del Toro crafts his appearances with unsettling effect there are at least two very intense scenes with the dead boy coming after Fernando Tielve. However, The Devil's Backbone is also a horror film that seeks to be more than a horror film. As important to it as the horror element also seems to be the historical setting. (Guillermo Del Toro has a great fascination with the Spanish Civil War, using it also as a setting in Pan's Labyrinth where fantastic elements were likewise contrasted against the grim realities of the historical era). Del Toro does a fine job in the crafting of a beautifully photographed sense of place and in building the characters around the orphanage and their inter-relational dramas. These scenes are given as much weight as the supernatural scenes, resulting in a ghost story that seems an odd cross-genre hybrid. Indeed, in the US, The Devil's Backbone went out as an arthouse release and was greeted more by the foreign language crowd than those who seek out genre-identifying horror, even though it was given ample coverage by genre magazines.
For all that, The Devil's Backbone feels like a good but never fully satisfying film. For one, the denouement is surprisingly traditional. For all the chill dread eeriness that Guillermo Del Toro evokes the appearances of the child with, its revelation as merely a child seeking retribution for its murder seem a little banal and ordinary in proportion to the build-up. Dozens of other ghost stories have conducted variations on such a plot denouement and one anticipated that Guillermo Del Toro might have conducted it with far more conceptual ambition than that.
Furthermore, the film throws all manner of interesting and unusual images at us the unexploded bomb dropped by the Fascists half-buried in the courtyard that is claimed to house souls; and the titular Devils Backbone, an alcohol that is soaked in the foetuses of deformed children. Were this a literary work, either image, especially considering that the film is entitled The Devil's Backbone, would have had enormous symbolic function and would come to echo other parts of the story. Here however they remain merely offbeat images that Guillermo Del Toro fails to ignite or attach any importance to.
Guillermo Del Toros other genre films include:- the vampire film Cronos (1993), the intelligent bug film Mimic (1997), Blade II (2001), the comic strip Hellboy (2004), the greatly acclaimed, awards-winning fantasy film Pans Labyrinth (2006), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), the giant robot film Pacific Rim (2013), the ghost story Crimson Peak (2015) and the amphibian man romance The Shape of Water (2017), which won Del Toro an Academy Award as Best Director. He also co-writes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). Del Toro has also produced other genre works like Chronicles (2002), Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms (2006), Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron (2007), The Orphanage (2007), While She Was Out (2008), Julias Eyes (2010), Splice (2010), Dont Be Afraid of the Dark (2011), Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), Puss in Boots (2011), Rise of the Guardians (2012), Mama (2013), The Book of Life (2014), Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), as well as the tv series The Strain (2014-7) based on his novel.