Movie Review of The Devil's Backbone (2001)

by JoHarrington

A young boy is dumped in an orphanage in rural Spain, right at the brink of the country's fall to Fascism. This intelligent movie beautifully unravels its subsequent horror.

To say that 'The Devil's Backbone' is a ghost story is to seriously undersell it. It's a complex tale with a dozen sub-plots, but which never once loses its audience.

I had heard nothing but good things about this film, so I leapt at the chance to finally view it. It lived up to expectations, and has played in my mind ever since.

This is not a movie to watch once and then forget. It's one to savor the first time, then watch again to satisfy your musings after the final credits have rolled. So many stories in one tense, poetical whole render this a film to enjoy over and over again.

The Devil's Backbone on DVD

Personally I find this DVD cover totally unrepresentative of what the film is about. It's like the artist was attempting to attach a tacky horror cliche where there was none.

The Devil's Backbone as a Supernatural Story

A haunted orphanage should be cinematic cliche by now, but this is the movie that the others were aspiring to be. And it's not cliched at all.

Image: The Devil's Backbone ghostThe Devil's Backbone is billed as a ghost story, and so it is.  Within ten minutes of the opening sequence there is your ghost.

Nothing hidden. Nothing half-glimpsed.  One ghost on full view. 

You should get your clues from that transparency that this is not going to be your average Hollywood output. You aren't going to get your horror genre thrills from things jumping out from cupboards or plenty of gore.

It's all much more subtle than that.  It's not even Hollywood.

Set during the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, this is a movie which uses its ghosts as a metaphor for the whole country.  Or you could just watch it straight and not notice the undercurrents.  They are there, they're stylish, but they're not in your face.

The special effects are minimally applied, but when they are used, they are given just the right touch. Mostly it's the astounding performances of all involved, which carry this intricate tale into its horrific conclusion.

Trailer for The Devil's Backbone

A Weaving of Storylines

The Devil's Backbone is initially told from the point of view the orphaned Carlos. 

He has no idea that he's going to be left at this dilapidated and isolated orphanage. He thinks his father is still alive.

From the moment he walks into the courtyard, he sees an unexploded bomb lodged into the ground, and the ghost of a former resident.

If this was a British film, that would probably be the whole story.  But fortunately it's an Hispanic movie, which means that this is just the prelude. 

I realized upon finishing it that I'd just effortlessly followed the interwoven points of view of eight people at least.  I want to watch it again to see if there were more. Their tales are each threaded into the main narrative with such skill, that I barely noticed it happening.

Carlos is billed as the protagonist, but he's just one of many.  This movie could be watched from the perspective of any of the exquisitely rendered characters. 

It's not the Dead that You have to Fear

In fact, that's actually the movie's tagline: "The living will always be more dangerous than the dead."

Image: The Devil's BackboneThe beauty of The Devil's Backbone is that nothing is entirely as it seems.  At least it's not if you come steeped in horror movie traditions, and you're simply waiting for the same old, same old to unfold.

You quickly realize that the horror is not in the supernatural, but in everything else besides. This is a story set during the closing stages of a war.  The owners of the orphanage are on the losing side. This is where the true horror lies.

After watching the movie, I read a few reviews to see if everyone else saw the same film as I did.  Amongst the many using words like 'masterpiece' and 'stunning', there was one sour note. One person complained that the antagonist was too good-looking!

I admit that I laughed. That viewer was obviously someone who likes their world to be delineated in firm black and white.  The baddies have to be ugly and the good guys have to be gorgeous. 

If you wish your entertainment to be so simple, then this is not the film for you. It's way more intelligent than that. The very fact that it doesn't employ cheap convention is what keeps the viewer on their toes. 

Just as in the Spanish Civil War itself, you do not know who to trust, or if there are concepts so neat as trust and distrust.  Family turned upon family, but there was love there too.  So it is with The Devil's Backbone, where sides shift depending upon the twists and turns of the narrative.

Though I do admit that the antagonist is definitely easy on the eye!

Trailer for The Devil's Backbone

Watch The Devil's Backbone on Special Edition DVD or Amazon Instant Video

The Devil's Backbone (Special Edition)The Devil's Backbone

A Tense Psychological Thriller with Subtitles

The movie is all in Spanish, but there are English subtitles. Within minutes you forget that you are even reading.

Image: Devil's BackboneAnother criticism that I read really made me face-palm.  "It's not in English!" The reviewer bemoaned, like that somehow lessened the whole experience.

The truth is that it really didn't.  I am not Spanish speaking.  I was reading along with everyone else.  As the movie began, I wondered how I would get on with that, as it felt like I was missing something constantly watching the words on the screen.

The reality was that, within five minutes, I totally forgot that I was reading.  I didn't miss a moment of the action and I never once felt that I was missing out.  Perhaps it would have been better to have understood the Spanish, but it's not necessary.

Every scene is crafted to perfection, with the tension growing by the second. You are too busy caring about every person on the scene, and wondering what is going to happen to them, to even register the subtitles. They are just being read as a matter of course.

If you're not willing to give a Spanish language and subtitled movie a go, then frankly you deserve to miss out on this one.

Movie Review: The Devil's Backbone

Penn State's Bill Kelly with his take on this hauntingly great movie.

The Devil's Backbone Only Scrapes a Pass on the Bechdel Test

Two or more named women have to have a conversation about something other than a male character.

Image: There are three women in The Devil's Backbone.  The young and beautiful Conchita; the matronly Alma; and the orphanage's overseer, Carmen.

While we don't hear a great deal from Alma, they are all very strong characters.  This is a movie where even what is happening in the background is worth watching, and that's Alma's realm. 

Meanwhile the changing times have a much more profound place for Conchita and Carmen. They are very much in the foreground, fighting the good fight.  Not one of those three women appeared as two dimensional people. The movie could have been told from the point of view of them all.

(It was also interesting to analyze The Devil's Backbone as a sovereignty tale, with Carmen playing the role of Spain Herself.  Would she choose the impotent poetry of the Republic or the cold aggression of Franco's Fascism?)

With all this background and beauty, it seems incredible that the movie could possibly fail at such a low bar as the Bechdel Test allows.  Yet I watched scene after scene, where the ladies stood in the same room without exchanging a word to each other.

Finally it happened!  It barely counted as a conversation, but it was communication. Alma asked Carmen if she was alright.  Carmen, without looking at her, answered the question.  Then later Carmen spoke the words shown on my illustration above.  Alma didn't verbally respond, but she did act on it.

Thus there was a pass on the Bechdel Test, but only just.  It feels peevish to even award it for so little, but the Bechdel Test's standard really is that low.  It seems a shame that so many movies can't even beat that.

Three questions are asked of each movie. They are so simple that it would be harder to fail than pass. They examine the role of females in that film. Nearly half fail.
Updated: 12/10/2012, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 12/06/2012

It's quite terrifying in the movie too!

Paul on 12/06/2012

Either way, it's terrifying!

JoHarrington on 12/06/2012

The special effects on the ghost are really good. He's a little boy btw, though it's not obvious from that close up.

I still recommend this movie. It's really good and it sticks with you.

Paul on 12/06/2012

The girl on the special edition DVD cover looks stupidly creepy for what it is...

JoHarrington on 11/12/2012

I definitely recommend it. It's a wonderful film. Enjoy!

Kate on 11/12/2012

This looks good! I'm off to get popcorn and a comfort blanket

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