The precise moment in which The Devil’s Backbone takes place is utterly instrumental to the telling of Guillermo del Toro’s striking Spanish ghost story, first released 20 years ago today. A year and date aren’t given, but they can be roughly surmised from the psychological state of the characters on screen. It’s the final days of the Spanish Civil War and, for those who backed the democratically elected republic, it’s clear that the writing is on the wall. That impending sense of doom—the utter certainty that despite fighting the good fight, inescapable oppression is right around the corner—colors the film with a palpable sense of apocalyptic dread, and an uncertainty as to what will be left when it’s all over. Those who fought for their democracy aren’t about to give up, but their faces are etched with the crushing grief of defeat—they’re just going through the motions at this point.
And suffice to say, children growing up in a dingy little orphanage deserve better than caretakers who are just “going through the motions,” but they’ll have to take what they can get. Little Carlos arrives at the parched orphanage, the son of a man who died fighting in the hopeless conflict, without anyone he can call his own. Although he improbably forges a tenuous friendship with a local bully, perhaps it’s his utter aloneness that makes him receptive to visions from the beyond. Perhaps he’s been chosen specifically for this task; this commune with the dead. Perhaps that’s why the ghost of little Santi chooses to appear before him.
The Devil’s Backbone is both mystery and classic gothic ghost story, intertwining the adult drama of the orphanage’s caretakers, who are also funneling support to the doomed Republican fighters, and the trials of young Carlos, who is delving deep into the history of the orphanage itself—unearthing some old skeletons in the process. The structure has obvious thematic similarities with del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth, but where Pan is fantastical and beautiful, The Devil’s Backbone is grittier and more genuinely frightening, although no less visually mesmerizing. Like all of del Toro’s films, however, it maintains a deeply human emotional core, empathizing with the plight of its protagonists young and old, in a time when no one else could reasonably have done any better.
From the moment that Carlos is unceremoniously dumped into the orphanage’s dust-choked courtyard, The Devil’s Backbone distinguishes itself in particular through the starkly beautiful cinematography of frequent del Toro collaborator Guillermo Navarro. The unexploded bomb that resides there is immediately one of the genre’s most potent visual metaphors, infecting this place with invisible tendrils of hatred that seem to poison the inhabitants, driving lost souls like caretaker Jacinto ever closer to the precipice of irredeemability. The entire film is peppered with singular images of beauty that etch themselves into the imagination, many evoking classic Western tropes, such as the silhouette of gentle caretaker Conchita striding out into the brilliant contrast of cyan sky and baked orange dust. Other memorable images of course have a more ghoulish dimension, from the crazed gleam of Jacinto’s single, bloodshot eye, to the ever-weeping forehead wound of the ghostly Santi—a visual so effective that del Toro couldn’t seem to help revisiting it years later in Crimson Peak.
The haunting here is multifaceted, both literal and metaphorical. The orphanage is home to small bastions of love and tenderness, but they’re always in danger of being undermined by the corrupting influence of guilt and self-loathing. Truly, the guilt gnaws at every one of these characters, from administrator Carmen, who hates her susceptibility to the temptations of the flesh, to orphanage bully Jaime, wracked with guilt over his observation of his friend Santi’s death. As the primary antagonist, Jacinto is particularly pitiable, and del Toro never loses sympathy for him. This is not a character compelled by classical evil or misanthropy—just garden variety self-loathing and greed. He hates himself for the many years he spent at the orphanage and the fact that he eventually returned to it, while simultaneously holding onto a spark of entitlement that tells him he always deserved something greater. Jacinto’s role in the killing of Santi is like so many other things in his life—impulsive and accidental—but it’s just one step of many that have pushed him down an ever-darker path of prioritizing his own self-preservation.
The Devil’s Backbone is, 20 years on, the kind of classic ghost story that like The Innocents or The Others has aged extremely well thanks to the strength of its performances and its overall focus on instilling a specific mood rather than hammering home the scare chords. It manages to balance a tender portrayal of coming of age and making friends in an inherently hostile environment with classically creepy overtones, displaying symbolism that is both easy for an audience to grasp and satisfying for viewers to consider in greater depth. Tidy, self-assured and expertly constructed within the framework of a relatively small budget, it was the film that proved eventual Best Director winner del Toro was ready for bigger and more ambitious projects, but it still remains his most touching work in the horror genre.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.