The Devil's Backbone (18)

Review by Simon Bell

“WHAT is a ghost?” the opening voiceover asks rhetorically. “A terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over… a sentiment suspended in time”. Long before the first appearance of this film’s visitant, and the ensuing moments of terror that repeat themselves with every one of its whispering advent, one gets the impression that this just might be a spook flick with a difference.

Indeed it is and more besides.

A masterful and original concoction of history and horror from director Guillermo del Toro, “The Devil’s Backbone” follows hot on the heels of the other classy Hispanic shocker granted deserved British screen space this term, “The Others”. While del Toro (a Mexican) and Alejandro Amenabar (A Spaniard) share a Mother Tongue, both talented cinephiles also partake of a film-making that evidently imbues tired genres with a fresh intelligence and neat complexity.

Set during the Spanish Civil War, Backbone’s world is that of an orphanage haunted by the ghost of a young boy and seen through a young boy’s eyes.

Told with creepy expressionism, the story accompanies ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) after his Republican father is killed in battle and he’s subsequently left in a desert waifhouse.

There, crippled widow (Marisa Paredes – well-known in Mexico) and kindly schoolteacher Casares (Argentine Frederico Luppi – a star in Spain) hope to shield their foundlings from the advancing Fascists.

Meanwhile, attempting to come to terms with his recent abandonment, Carlos must now contend with the bullying of an older charge and the over-bearing severity of a surly janitor. All this while trying to comprehend the aqueous presence of the fledgeling phantasm.

Radiantly painted rather than photographed, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro’s pictures come in scorched orange browns and shimmering blues while his nocturnal images are atmospheric to say the least.

Coupled with dressy digital effects and a sensually evocative soundscape, The Devil’s Backbone is packaged and stylishly delivered with total accomplishment. It’s a film that comes from a director with a unique vision and, for UK audiences at least, a very promising future.

And it’s got a killer ending.