Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is a ten-year-old orphan of the Spanish Civil War, only he doesn't know it yet because his current guardian hasn't broken the bad news to him. Taken to an orphanage situated in the sun-baked desert, Carlos is left in the courtyard while his guardian discusses leaving him there with the widow who runs the establishment, Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and her fellow founder, Dr Casares (Federico Luppi). They both agree that with the Fascists winning the war, it's none too safe to be taking in any more boys when they are socialists after all, but they have no choice. As Carlos is abandoned there, he worries about the future, though the past will be just as fraught with danger...
Before writer and director Guillermo del Toro won international acclaim for his Spanish language, civil war-set fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, there was another film on similar lines that he came up with, produced by Pedro Almodóvar no less. But where the supernatural elements of the later film would not be entirely well integrated, seeming like two separate films edited together at times, del Toro was more successful at combining his ghosts with his history here. Writing with Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz he built up a finely honed atmosphere of dread and isolation, but in other ways he did it better with Pan's Labyrinth.
At heart The Devil's Backbone, or El Espinazo del Diablo as it was known in Spanish, was a respectable ghost story that looked back to an era that had little to be proud of. Fertile ground for a tale of betrayal and revenge, as this is, with Carlos having no option but to do his best to unravel the mystery behind the orphanage's phantom, called "The One who Sighs" by the boys who have brief glimpses of him and the odd brush with his effects. The identity of this ghost apparently can't be worked out by them for some reason, even though one of their number disappeared a while ago and has not been seen since a bomb dropped into their courtyard and thankfully failed to go off.
There's a stately air to the film, which tends to make the action move as fast as the slugs the boys delight in collecting - sure, it's admirably well mounted, but there's a lack of excitement to its telling that sadly affects the bloody climax. As Carmen and Dr Casares fret that they will be found out by the Fascists, they really should be looking closer to home for the real threat, him being Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a grown up orphan turned janitor who still hangs around in the hope he will get his hands on the gold that lies in the safe. Although he hides it, Jacinto has psychopathic leanings, so when the time comes to flee the saboteur in their midst well and truly sticks a spanner in the works. The cast approach this without a hint of irony, sustaining the spell the film has over the viewer, but despite the explosions and whatnot, the story never catches fire. Nice to watch, but as sterile as contents of the medical jars. Music by Javier Navarrete.
Stylish Mexican horror director who moves between personal projects and Hollywood blockbusters. After a couple of short films, he earned international attention with unusual vampire chiller Cronos. Mimic was an artistically disappointing follow up, but he enjoyed success with vampire action sequel Blade II, spooky ghost story The Devil's Backbone, and another horror comic adaptation, Hellboy. Spanish Civil War fantasy Pan's Labyrinth was widely seen as a triumph and won three Oscars. After a long spell in production hell since Hellboy 2, he returned with giant monster mash Pacific Rim and gothic chiller Crimson Peak. The Shape of Water, an unconventional horror romance, garnered him Oscars.