Ever since his debut film, Cronos, Spanish director Guillermo del Toro has been the focus of much undue adulation among critics and the Internet community of self-professed horror geeks. The problem is that del Toro's work thus far simply doesn't measure up to this kind of talk. Cronos' biggest novelty was that it was bilingual; had it all been shot in English and not won an award at Cannes, it likely would have gone straight to video (it practically did in the United States). As for his follow-up, the Miramax-produced giant-bug movie Mimic, it may have bedazzled Siskel and Ebert, but when computer-generated arthropods out-act your lead performers (among them a sleepwalking Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam), it isn't a good sign, and even the director is distancing himself from it these days. Although both films showed a visual flair, a taste for gore and a major affinity for run-down, shadowy interiors, there's only so much goodwill one can generate when there's little substance.
But with The Devil's Backbone, del Toro is dealing with subject matter that is clearly very meaningful to him personally, taking on both the Spanish Civil War -- a subject not especially familiar to contemporary Western audiences -- and the atrocious conditions that may be found in all-male boarding schools, something the director experienced firsthand as a youngster. Set at one such school in the middle of a vast and seemingly infinite plain, where an unexploded bomb is the centerpiece of the courtyard and the giant bloody crucifix on display has skinned knees for extra authenticity, The Devil's Backbone is half horror movie, half war drama, though never both at once. The film often seems to get off track when its steers away from the ghosts and into social statements, but the two threads ultimately connect in a satisfactory manner.
Our protagonist is young Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a war orphan dropped off at this desolate place in exchange for some of the gold that has been stockpiled by the one-legged headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), whose prosthetic limb resembles G.I. Joe by way of the Marquis de Sade. The gold, we are told, is no good to her; why is never clear, though it's implied that perhaps it's too valuable to be worth trading with any of the local merchants. Among the other adults in residence are caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a grown orphan who resents the place but sticks around to nail both the comely cook Conchita (Irene Visedo) and Carmen, from whom he hopes to gain access to the gold; and the elderly Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), our narrator and father figure for all the boys.
Carlos has barely been at the school five minutes before he catches sight of what looks like a dead child staring out at him from behind a darkened window. Swiftly disappearing and reappearing in shocking fashion as movie ghosts are wont to do, this asthmatic-sounding spirit is dubbed "the one who sighs" and is widely assumed to be Santi, a boy who disappeared the night the unexploded bomb fell. Chances are better than average that he's also the child shown drowning in brownish fluid (ghosts are "like insects trapped in amber," according to Casares) during the film's opening sequence.
Meanwhile, the usual school traumas of bullies and punishments are in effect, and Jacinto shows a nasty penchant for violence, slashing Carlos' cheek with a knife as punishment for defending himself against an aggressor. In the world outside, the war is getting closer, and the school may have to be abandoned. With all these hassles, one might think there'd be little time to deal with a phantom boy who breathes heavily and knocks over water jugs, but there he is nonetheless, intentions unknown, occasionally opening his mouth to proclaim, "Many of you will die." When finally revealed up close, he is certainly a sight to see: Del Toro has created one of the most visually distinctive ghosts ever to hit the big screen.
As for the film's title, it's based on a throwaway conversation, the set-up for a gross-out joke that's best left unrevealed here. The sensitive art-house viewer should be warned: Though slow-moving at first, the film ends in explosions and violent death, with a level of sadism that will undoubtedly prove too intense for some viewers. That may be the point; del Toro clearly feels that the Spanish Civil War was gratuitously violent and boarding schools unflinchingly harsh, but he's none too delicate about making his intentions clear. As Mimic proved, he has none of the usual Hollywood qualms about killing off children, but for those who can stomach this kind of thing, he's delivered a haunting work of art that will stay with you for some time.