Spine Tingling: 'The Devil's Backbone'

"What is a ghost?" asks the unseen narrator at the outset of the intriguing new Spanish-Mexican import The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo). "An emotion? A terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over?" All this and more, as The Devil's Backbone would have it. It's no accident that the rhetorical question that opens the movie seems to be linking up history and memory — the phantasm of human progress and the ghosts of the mind — with the standard supernatural variety of spirits with which most of us are familiar, at least in movies and books. And that's only part of the ambitious agenda threaded through The Devil's Backbone, an elegant and richly layered ghost story in which the creepiest ghosts haven't quite figured out that they're already dead.

No, this isn't the season's The Sixth Sense or The Others. The Devil's Backbone has a lot more going on than aren't-we-clever trick endings in which it's ultimately revealed that one or more of our erstwhile heroes is literally of the poltergeist persuasion. What we have in The Devil's Backbone is a horror story of the first order, densely textured and elaborately imagined, in which the most resonant horrors turn out to be not just of a supernatural nature (although they're in there as well), but also psychological and social — greed, murder, betrayal and a whole gamut of human ills associated with the plague of war.

The Devil's Backbone takes place during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, at a time of great moral chaos and physical suffering (which most of the rest of the world, then as now, is doing its best to conveniently ignore). Virtually the entire film is set in a desolate, isolated orphanage jutting out a dusty plain in the middle of nowhere — and yet the war's presence is everywhere. The young residents of the orphanage are all the children of dead rebels, and the place is run by a couple of dyed-in-the-wool leftists: a kindly, poetry-spouting old doctor named Casares (Federico Luppi) and a steely, one-legged war widow named Carmen (the indomitable Marisa Paredes from Almodovar's All About My Mother).

The adult characters are all embroiled in a kinky web of secret passions and unsavory longings that would be right at home in a vintage Mexican melodrama or a cinematic slice from Spain's undisputed master of the gleefully perverse, the late, great Luis Bunuel. Carmen unstraps her artificial leg every night (an elaborate metallic-wooden contraption fetishized in a manner straight out of Bunuel's Tristana) and satisfies her carnal desires with a studly young handyman who fills her with shame (among other things). Jacinto the handyman (Eduardo Noriega, star of the Vanilla Sky prototype Open Your Eyes) is himself a former resident of the orphanage and a former pupil of the conflicted Carmen's. He diddles the sweet young Conchita (Irene Visedo) on the side and lives only for the day he can steal the stash of gold he imagines must be hidden somewhere on the grounds and then blow the place up.

Meanwhile, Casares, a sensitive soul who also seems to be the very picture of impotence, devotes his remaining energies to waiting out the war while repressing the unspoken love he clearly feels for Carmen. He spends his time in his room with his poetry and his music, or mixing up batches of the special rum in which he pickles his extensive collection of curiously shaped fetuses. The mutated fetuses — referred to as "the children who should never have been born" — are paralleled throughout the film with the sad plight of the young orphans and all the other victims of war and human cruelty who wander through The Devil's Backbone. As for the strange amber liquid in which the fetuses float, it's dubbed "limbo water" and sold to the locals for whatever ails them.

Intrigued yet? Well, it gets a whole lot stranger.

Into this murky mix comes the newest member of the community of orphans, 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve). Carlos is quickly initiated into the group of children, which is essentially a hierarchy of bullies, some actual and others potential. The Devil's Backbone plays against typical perceptions of childhood innocence and, in yet another nod to Bunuel, posits a microcosm in which every little fish is just a bullying big fish in disguise, and every big fish has an even bigger fish waiting in the wings to lord it over him. It all plays into the movie's ongoing ghost metaphor, in this case the too-tough-and-dumb-to-die ghost of Spanish Fascism.

Lest it get overlooked with all the movie's political allegory, high-minded cinematic references and Gothic textures, there's also a bona fide, creepy-crawly, ghost's ghost lurking about in The Devil's Backbone, and little Carlos gets introduced to it almost immediately. It turns out that the Santa Lucia orphanage is haunted by the restless spirit of a sad little boy named Santi, an asthmatic apparition known to the orphans as "the one who sighs."

A small miracle of discreet CGI effects, Santi appears from time to time to issue whispered warnings and scare the hell out of everybody with his clouded-over gaze and the gravity-defying stream of blood and bubbles that spirals up from his cracked and translucent head. Santi's death is assumed to be the result of a huge bomb that fell from the sky one night (which now sits, unexploded, embedded squarely in the middle of the orphanage's courtyard — still one more of the movie's killer metaphors). The real cause of the child's death is even more sinister, however, and yet one more secret that the movie reveals in its own good time.

The writer and director of The Devil's Backbone is Guillermo Del Toro, the talented Mexican-born filmmaker whose previous movies (the magnificent 1992 vampire tale Cronos and the underrated Hollywood-financed Mimic) display a unique understanding and profound affection not just for the nuances of cinema history, but, specifically, for the horror genre. The Devil's Backbone, which is Del Toro's best film since Cronos and his most personal effort ever, is clearly a horror movie, but it's also much more.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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