Though referred to by Guillermo del Toro as the “brother” film to his masterful Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), The Devil’s Backbone (2001) feels more like a rough sketch for the later film. But it’s a good rough sketch, and rough only in the sense that it doesn’t as effectively and completely blend the elements of fantastic and human horror. Where Pan’s Labyrinth comes across as a perfect blending of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau, The Devil’s Backbone is more along the lines of a ghost story à la Buñuel—with at least one nod to Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Still, the similarities between Backbone and Pan are inescapable, not in the least because both deal with the Spanish Civil War and the brutality and repression of Franco’s fascist Nationalists. (It may be worth noting that Pedro Almodóvar coproduced the film, since much of Almodóvar’s oeuvre is a celebration of the end of that repression—most directly addressed perhaps in Live Flesh (1997).) Also, both del Toro films look at the war through the perspective of a child, and contain sympathetic older men and a heroic domestic worker. There is a difference between the two films in that, in some ways, Backbone may seem to offer its child protagonist a kinder fate—albeit an open-ended one—but even that is a matter open to discussion.
The setting for Backbone is an orphanage run by Loyalist sympathizers filled with the children of Loyalists. Into this comes the war’s latest innocent victim, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), whose father has been killed. Almost as soon as he arrives, he sees “the one who sighs,” who turns out to be the ghost of a supposedly missing child. The scenes involving the ghost are intense and unsettling. The image of the ghost is based in large part on the look of those in Japanese horror films, but the ghost is given a unique spin by del Toro, who envisions the specter with an ever-bleeding wound in its head—one from which the blood rises like a wispy red cloud. It’s an image that makes perfect sense in the context of the story—something that doesn’t keep it from being a truly chilling creation.
The weakness of the film—if it can be called a weakness, since the film is about a lot more than being a ghost story—lies in the fact that the mystery of the ghost and what it wants is fairly transparent early on. However, the atmosphere generated is terrific, and the sense of dread and impending doom—symbolized by the unexploded bomb stuck in the ground of the orphanage courtyard—is palpable. In addition, the story construction could hardly be improved upon. Every aspect of the film ties together, without the plot holes one finds in all too many horror films. This is a weirdly poetic film. The fact that del Toro outdid it with Pan’s Labyrinth is a testament to his own growth as an artist, not a weakness of this earlier work.