Guillermo del Toro has made a career out of making nothing but monster movies, and has done it in a way which has elevated the genre picture rather than brought down his career. Proving that monsters have just as much of a place in foreign art films as they do in Hollywood blockbusters, del Toro may have gained mainstream popularity with big budget films such as his Hellboy franchise and
Pacific Rim, but he has also achieved remarkable
critical success with Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.
Del Toro began his career with a completely unique take on the vampire mythos with Cronos, setting the groundwork for the filmmaker’s style and ability to blend reality with fantasy realistically. It also began his tendency to utilize children protagonists, as was the case with Pan’s Labyrinth and also with The Devil’s Backbone, and with storylines that take place a specific time and place in history. Set in the final days of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone is a coming-of-age ghost story in which human behavior is more frightening than the film’s “monster.”
The story follows a twelve-year-old boy as he is brought to a rural orphanage after his father is killed in the resistance. As one among many orphaned children of freedom fighters living in an orphanage in the middle of nowhere, there are many new dangers. Among them is the rumor of the ghost of a missing child, a spirit haunting the halls late at night and interacting with our newcomer protagonist. There is a mystery at the heart of The Devil’s Backbone, but even with the secrets revealed this is a film worth watching numerous times.
Part of the reason that The Devil’s Backbone is such a great film is not because of the horror aspects, which is usually highlighted in
horror as the primary emphasis. Less important than the monster and the special
effects used to create it are the characters within the screenplay and the
actors who bring them to life. Del Toro makes personal horror movies with an
emphasis on humanity over the monstrous even amidst dark material. Because of
how we care for these characters, due to their elegant construction, the horror
has more significance without needing to overwhelm the storyline.
The Criterion Blu-ray release comes with a newly restored 2K digital film transfer, supervised by del Toro and his director of photography, Guillermo Navarro. The film has 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master audio, with an optional director’s commentary track, who also provides a video introduction from the 2010. The special features also include new and archival interviews with the director, as well as a making-of documentary from 2004 and four deleted scenes with optional commentary by del Toro. It doesn’t stop there. With an interactive director’s notebook, new interviews with Spanish Civil War scholar Sebastian Faber, storyboard and thumbnail comparisons and a new English subtitle translation done by del Toro himself, this is as good as any fan could hope for. There is also a foldout insert with an essay by critic Mark Kermode.
Entertainment Value: 9/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 10/10
Historical Significance: 9/10
Disc Features: 10/10