The image of a child’s sallow-faced corpse, blood perpetually streaming upward from a head wound that will never heal, is a disturbing one. It’s not hard to see why the children at an isolated Spanish orphanage are spooked by it. The adults who manage the facility are, of course, unaware of the spirit haunting their digs. Aging Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) and administrator Carmen (Marisa Paredes) are in charge, somewhat reluctantly accepting a new orphan boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), who immediately becomes the target of bullying after meeting the other boys.
The early stretches of Backbone are intriguing, establishing an aura of deep unease. The centerpiece of the orphanage is a gigantic, undetonated bomb that stands, half buried, in the courtyard. Though it has been defused, it signals the presence of another kind of bomb—a ticking human time bomb, capable of going off without warning. Del Toro drops clues, but it isn’t until the second half that we find out who this combustible individual actually is. Until then, the focus remains primarily on the interactions of Carlos, who has the misfortune of being assigned Santi’s recently vacated bunk, and the other boys. His encounters with Santi’s ghost are evocatively staged by del Toro as lucid nightmares. Though frightened, Carlos wants to solve the mystery of what happened to Santi.
Along the way, del Toro drops in some seriously uncomfortable moments. Impotent Casares, the orphanage doctor, keeps stillborn human corpses in jars on his desk. Their exposed spinal cords are where the film’s title comes from. He explains the supposed therapeutic properties of the embalming fluid that preserves the tiny bodies to a justifiably stunned Carlos. And it gets even ickier from there. Meanwhile, Carmen, an amputee with a wooden leg, belittles Casares at every turn (despite the doctor’s obvious unrequited love for Carmen), getting sexually served by another of the orphanage’s adult staff members. Carmen and Casares, Republican loyalists who oppose the Nationalist aggressors, are sitting on a vault of gold intended to aid the Republican cause. A working knowledge of Spanish history of the era will be a boon to one’s understanding of Backbone, but even if you’re completely ignorant of it (as I am), del Toro’s sure-handed storytelling prevails.
The Devil’s Backbone looks terrific in 1080p, not especially surprising given its relatively recent vintage. The oversaturated blue skies contrast wonderfully with the barren desert landscapes in Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography. It’s all perfectly captured by Criterion’s new transfer, struck from the original 35mm negatives and supervised by both Navarro and del Toro. Sharpness and fine detail are never wanting, even during the darker lighted scenes involving the ghost of Santi. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix is the original Spanish-language track. Given the generally sedate atmosphere that dominates much of Backbone, the surround effects are intentionally sparse (but effective). There are scenes late in the film that do employ the LFE to powerful effect. Javier Navarrete’s score is well placed within the mix, expertly supporting the action on screen.
Lovers of The Devil’s Backbone will have plenty to dig into with Criterion’s generous supplements package, including a director’s commentary track. Featurettes about the film’s production (“Que es un fantasma?”) and the influence of the Spanish Civil War (“A War of Values”) add context to del Toro’s vision. Several interviews with del Toro deepen the film’s backstory even further. There are also deleted scenes and interactive galleries exploring del Toro’s “Director’s Notebook.” Criterion is known for including only the most useful of extra features, generally avoiding the kind of promotional puff pieces that junk up most mainstream releases. They’ve outdone themselves here.
Back to front, The Criterion Collection has knocked this one out of the park. The Devil’s Backbone may not be as talked about as del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth or as popular as his Hellboy movies. But for anyone distressed by the visionary director’s recent mega-budget mess Pacific Rim, this serves as a perfect reminder of what Guillermo del Toro is capable of.