The Devil's Backbone

In order to make a truly scary horror film, you have to be scared; how can you portray fear of a thing, unless you feel it yourself? The problem with Guillermo Del Toro is that he isn't afraid of ghosts. You actually get the feeling that he might have had a decaying, zombie-like ghost as a an imaginary friend as a child.

Given budget, Del Toro's macabre predilections created the masterpiece that is Pan's Labyrinth and made him a big enough hitter to be called upon for The Hobbit; without them, however, back in his native Mexico, the auteur produced creepy, character-driven horror films. Among them, The Devil's Backbone.

As such, you shouldn't be put off if you don't find the film scary. The camera, directed by Del Toro, is far too fascinated by his ghost to be horrified. This is, in fact, a Shakespearean social drama examining isolation, love, superstition and fear itself, along with the adverse, bravery.

Set during the Spanish civil war, the film concerns the orphan Carlos, who is placed in a run-down orphanage under the care of thwarted lovers Madam Carmen and the impotent, but noble Dr Casares . Fearsome handy-man Jacinto , who grew up in the orphanage, plots his escape from the life he has been stranded in by his parent's death. Carlos, on the other hand, is forced to contend with the cruel bully Jaime and his cronies, who know that something sinister is lurking in the pool of water in the cellar; something to do with a young orphan who vanished years earlier.

As you can tell, the air of menace and the presence of the supernatural are all carried over from the horror template, but this isn't about a curse to be overcome, nor is it particularly gory. As I said, this is more a character drama charting the disparate motivations of the people living in the orphanage, the ghost included.

Speaking of which, what initially appears to be a cheap and ill-conceived effect, gradually reveals itself to be an impressive construct once it escapes the shadows. Yet, "impressive" is the appropriate word; you don't want to look away in horror, you're transfixed by the spirit. As, indeed, you are by the characters.

The real genius of Del Toro's work is the way he puts the residents of the orphanage through the ringer. Make no mistake, this is a tragedy. Yet, every one of them comes through triumphantly; including the villain, in a way, and even the ones who don't survive have a heroic death. 

The overall feeling is a melancholy, but uplifting film, filled with brilliant, non-Hollywood performances and fantastic characters. It's a worthy "brother" film to Pan's Labyrinth.

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