Last summer Alejandro Amenabar, who was born in Chile and raised in Spain, breathed new life in the Gothic genre with The Others. Now Mexico's Guillermo del Toro has crafted an atmospheric, weirdly unique spook show with The Devil's Backbone. Perhaps both filmmakers were nourished by the supernatural traditions of magic realism, although neither of their movies quite resembles the Latin American literary movement.
The Devil's Backbone quickly reveals itself to be one of the most sun-drenched ghost stories ever filmed. In the last days of the Spanish Civil War, the Santa Lucia Boarding School has become a de facto orphanage for the children of slain Republican rebels. The war proves a constant, inescapable presence at the school, which also seems to exist outside of time and space, standing in a remote plain like one of the desolate, quasi-mythic towns of Spaghetti Westerns.
The school's most striking feature stands in its courtyard: a massive, defused bomb that failed to explode during an air raid, which proves an object of terrifying fascination for the boy students and a potent symbol that Santa Lucia is living on borrowed time. The bomb is one of the first things noticed by 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who's delivered to the school like a Dickensian waif and doesn't know that his rebel father has been killed in action.
The school features many Gothic details, such as a bald, menacing handyman nicknamed "Pig" who resembles B-movie character actor Tor Johnson. Headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) hobbles about on a wooden leg, while the aged, kindly professor Casares (Federico Luppi) keeps a collection of creepy medical oddities. The film's memorably stylistic credit sequence shows a montage of images of one of Casares' grisly keepsakes, floating in a jar like an insect in amber.
Such conditions make it unusually difficult for Carlos to fit in, especially faced by the hostility of the crafty, bullying Jaime (Inigo Garces). The boys also whisper of a spectral presence known as "the one who sighs," which seems to live in the well in the kitchen basement. While Carlos contemplates the mystery of a vanished student named Santi, the school's smoldering caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) searches for a small cache of gold ingots hidden on the grounds.
Despite the extremes of the situation, del Toro grounds the first half of The Devil's Backbone in daily routines, as the boys eat increasingly meager meals, study history in the classroom, quarrel over comic books at recess and dare each other to sneak into forbidden parts of the building after light's out. And some of the details defy rational explanation, like the child-sized wet footprints that mysteriously appear in the hallways.
Guillermo del Toro debuted with the acclaimed, atypical vampire flick Cronos and also directed the stylish but derivative sci-fi thriller Mimic. He has a gift for building suspense and crafting unsettling images. He'd do well to place more faith in his audience's imagination, though: Rather quickly after Carlos' arrival does he -- and the audience -- begin to see a ghostly figure, rendered with corpselike makeup and special effects suggesting that it's both in the air and underwater simultaneously.
Nor does del Toro blanch at filming bloody moments, and not just violent acts with knives, sharpened sticks and burning cans of gasoline. The Devil's Backbone also views the aftermath of violence, showing gory injuries and their medical treatment, as if to suggest that the nation's war doesn't stop outside the school grounds.
The film gets sympathetic, accomplished performances from young Tielve and Garces, and highly sensitive work from the elder players. Luppi comes across as one of those sage, bearded actors whose eyes seem to express a lifetime of regret. Despite his learning and artistic appreciation, he can neither express his unrequited love for Carmen nor protect children like Carlos from the tribulations of the world.
For her part, Paredes can set her features with a fierceness worthy of Bette Davis (just as her role in Almodovar's All About My Mother explicitly invited the comparison). Yet her steely Carmen also shows compassion for the boys and grief for her deceased leftist husband. And though films usually ignore the sex lives of women past a certain age, Paredes conveys sensual pleasure and post-coital regret when Carmen beds Jacinto.
The Devil's Backbone doesn't have the tightest of plots and winds up placing too much of the story on an antagonist who seems half as bright as the students. The script, written by del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Munoz, must contort itself for the villain to remain a menace, while innocent characters keep sinister secrets for no good reason other than plot convenience.
Still, the film's facility at generating both fright and political allegory prove first rate, building to a finale a little reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies. It's a subtitled film, but one that can spook and satisfy any admirer of The Others and its ilk. One can even take pleasure by noticing the untranslated Spanish, in which "ghost" is "phantasmo" and the title is El Espinazo del Diablo. The Devil's Backbone is unnerving in any language.