VOD film review: The Devil’s Backbone
Ivan Radford | On 15, Feb 2018
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi
Watch The Devil’s Backbone online in the UK: Amazon Prime / MUBI UK / BFI Player+ / iTunes / Amazon Instant Video
With The Shape of Water swimming into UK cinemas this February, we continue our Guillermo del Toro retrospective, looking back at the director’s career, from the underrated gems available to stream to the lesser-known early works that are not.
“What is a ghost?” asks Guillermo del Toro in The Devil’s Backbone. “A tragedy doomed to repeat itself time and time again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead that still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
It perhaps sounds clunky on the page, but when it’s brought to life on the screen, that opening narration is the kind of profound poetry that has made del Toro’s work some of the best in the fantasy/horror genre. The director’s career has taken him all the way from gigantic beasts punching robots in Pacific Rim to the intimate vampiric tragedy of Cronos, and, as The Shape of Water arrives in cinemas, even to interspecies fish-human romance. With his obsession with monsters, death, sacrifice, loss and – above all – a love for those out of place in the real world, del Toro, perhaps, has fashioned a genre all of his own; you could put that voiceover at the start of any of his films and it would still fit in.
The Devil’s Backbone, then, represents something of a heart in del Toro’s body of work, his recurring themes and tones working in natural sync. This is a ghost story, but one that approaches the paranormal through a melancholic lens; it freezes the whole world in a limbo of sadness, in much the same way that the director’s films use magic realism to escape the horrors of life. It’s a perfect companion piece to Pan’s Labyrinth and, perhaps even more so, Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage.
Our story begins as the Spanish Civil War ends, as Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is taken to an orphanage in the middle of nowhere, where Professor Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes) look after a heap of young boys – and secretly stash the funds for the rebellion against Franco. It’s a dangerous task, one that has seen a bomb land in the middle of their estate’s courtyard. Unexploded and defused, it nonetheless sits there, shot in a way that looms over its young wards; a visual metaphor for the terror of conflict towering outside these safe walls.
Carlos is there because his parents have died in the battle, and inevitably struggles to fit in, as bully of the class Jaime (Inigo Garces) immediately begins to pick on him, due to his relatively wealthy, educated background. But when a challenge to fill up a jug of water goes wrong, Carlos finds himself investigating the mysterious “One Who Sighs”, a spirit that haunts the orphanage at night and may or may not be connected to the disappearance of orphan Santi a long time ago. The adults, meanwhile, have their own fears to deal with, not least Carmen and her tempestuous relationship with the orphanage’s sinister caretaker, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega).
It may not take too much deduction to work out what’s going on, but del Toro isn’t interested in surprises or scares: like Cronos, this isn’t a horror movie that relies on cheap jumps and loud bumps in the night, but rather, a mature, restrained tale that explores the very human emotion that’s masked behind all ghost stories. This is less about monsters and more about monstrous people, a distinction that is handled as delicately as del Toro’s deft balancing of the real and the imaginary. Made in the aftermath of his painful studio fallout on the meddled-with Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone was a return to roots for the filmmaker, who wanted to do something with creative control, and the personal touch leaves its fingerprints on every frame, fusing politics and personal feelings in a manner that still continues to this day in The Shape of Water. Morals, responsibility and compassion are all key touchstones for del Toro, and they’re served up time and time again, but rarely with as much raw purity as The Devil’s Backbone, which captures a sentiment that lingers long after the credits have rolled: an emotion suspended in time, like a ghost in its own right.
The Devil’s Backbone is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on BFI Player+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a 30-day free trial, and on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, until 18th November 2019.