After Mimic was edited to shreds by the Weinsteins, bombed at the box office and failed to work with audiences, Guillermo del Toro retreated back to Mexico and decided to put his efforts into making another film in his native language. This time filming in Spain, del Toro made The Devil’s Backbone, a part-horror part-drama that was wonderful received upon release and relaunched del Toro’s career as a highly-creative, imaginative and daring filmmaker capable of making beautiful films and writing characters that burst with warmth and heart.
Set near the end of the Spanish Civil War, a young boy named Carlos is dropped off at a remote orphanage due to his parents leaving him to fight in the war. Soon after arriving Carlos starts to have visions of an apparition in the shape of a young boy. Unsure of what it is or what it is wants, Carlos starts his own investigation into who or what the apparition may be. In the meantime the orphanage is facing its own troubles, with the corrupt and destructive groundskeeper, Jacinto, launching a vendetta against the orphanage and its owners.
Del Toro reveals with The Devil’s Backbone a unique ability to be able to weave genres and stories. Each storyline in the film has its own flavour. The Carlos storyline is very much a horror, these scenes are really effective, using the tension built through Jacinto’s story to add effect to the jump scares that litter Carlos’ adventure. Jacinto’s story on the other hand is definitely a thriller, with his anger and venom fueling his loud and surprisingly twisted arch. There is also the melodramatic arch based around the owners of the orphanage and their continued efforts to save it whilst also avoiding ramifications from the war.
With so much happening in the film it is amazing that everything works together seamlessly. Each story builds into the next, with the scenes almost entirely working in order from melodrama to thriller to horror. Once the horror segment has its “bang” moment, the film goes back to the drama and starts the build again. In most director’s hands this would be a messy and complicated way to craft a film, but del Toro pulls it off like a wizard. It also adds more depth to the film, if told in any other fashion the different stories might become tiresome and boring due the simplicity of them.
Also adding depth to the film is the impressive cast, made up mostly by first-time youngsters, each member delivers a phenomenal performance. Fernando Tielve as Carlos is revolutionary and I’m gutted to learn his career hasn’t really gone beyond this. He brings beautiful innocence and wonder to his character and is the heart and soul of The Devil’s Backbone. Íñigo Garcés as his best friend Jamie is almost as good, whilst being menacing early, his second half progression to hero is fantastic. The more established actors in Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes and del Toro regular Federico Luppi are all excellent.
The Devil’s Backbone is by a fair margin my favourite Guillermo del Toro film. I love each individual storyline for various reasons. Carlos’ adventure fills me so much joy, his child-like exploration of his new home and the ghosts that haunt it remind of the best parts of childhood. Noriega’s explosive performance as Jacinto drives his fantastic arch and he creates one of the most destructive and human villains ever captured on screen. The melodramatic tale that interweaves it all provides much needed relief from the tension and also grounds the film firmly in reality. All of this combines to create a truly mesmerizing experience – The Devil’s Backbone is a magical film.