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The Devil's Backbone
Reviewed by Rick Klaw, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Guillermo del Toro (writer, director)
Genre:   Horror
Released:   November 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

Just when I'm all set to administer Last Rites, something comes along and convinces me that the horror film is very much alive and kicking. The Devil's Backbone was just that film.

Set during the Spanish Civil War, this artistic tour-de-force by writer / director Guillermo del Toro (Chronos, Mimic, Blade 2) starts with the arrival of ten-year-old Carlos at the Santa Lucia School, an orphanage for children of Republican militia members. Soon after his arrival, the youngster has a frightening run-in with the villain of the film, the opportunistic caretaker Jacinto. As Carlos learns the ways of the school, he uncovers the secret of the ghost who is known as "The One Who Sighs."

What Jacinto wants from the school and how this all ties in within an undead entity is the centerpiece to this spooky film.

Nearly the entire film takes place within the walls of the orphanage, which reminded me of some of the old Texas missions. Beautifully shot, The Devil's Backbone is set in a grey world surrounded by stone. Del Toro really makes this work to his advantage by shooting things darkly and with high contrast. One of the many things he gets right.

"The One Who Sighs" is terrifying. The apparition appears as a wavy young boy viewed through a haze of water. To emphasize this point, a stream of red (what appears to be blood) oozes upwards from a gash on his forehead. It is all very creepy and effective. I understood and empathized with the orphans' fright.

Much more than a special effects film, The Devil's Backbone features wonderful acting from a very good cast. The emotions and actions are so well done that several scenes needed no translation. Matter of fact, the story and acting are so good and interesting that this story really didn't need the fantastic elements at all to be interesting. The supernatural bits were just gravy.

With The Devil's Backbone, Guillermo del Toro moves from a director to keep an eye on to a must-see filmmaker. This is one of the finest ghost stories I have ever seen. Sadly, subtitled films receive limited distribution and most of you will have to catch this one on video. Do whatever it takes, but don't miss The Devil's Backbone.

Rick Klaw is the fiction editor at RevolutionSF.

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