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The Devil's Backbone (2001)

The Criterion Collection
Blu-ray Disc Released: 7/30/2013

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2
Extras: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/17/2013

If asked why they make movies, I'm sure that filmmakers would give an assortment of answers (art, money, meeting girls, etc.). Beyond that, the next question would be, "Where do you want your career to go?" For most, the reply would be that they want to reach a point in their careers where they can make the kind of movies which they want to make. It would appear that Guillermo del Toro reached that point early in his career. Since directing his feature-film debut in 1993, del Toro has helmed 8 movies (although he has several more in pre-production). These have been an assortment of Hollywood action movies and smaller-arthouse films, with del Toro seemingly back and forth with little problem. One of these arty movies was 2001's The Devil's Backbone.

The Devil's Backbone takes place in the late 1930s during the Spanish Civil War. The film is set at a remote orphanage which is set in a vast, dry plain. The place houses a small group of boys and has a skeleton crew, but it can barely feed the kids. As the film opens, Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is brought to live at the orphanage (unbeknownst to him), and he's immediately disliked by the other boys. However, the kindly Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi) befriends the boy. Carlos hears the whispering that the orphanage is haunted and that a ghost roams the halls. Meanwhile, the caretaker, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), is obedient by day, but by night, he searches for gold which he's convinced Carmen (Marisa Paredes), who runs the facility, has hidden. As Carlos attempts to settle in, he becomes convinced that the story of the ghost is true, however, human forces pose a greater threat to the boys.

There's little debate about the fact that The Devil's Backbone is a beautiful movie. del Toro has proven time and time again that he has a great eye for visuals and this film is no exception. Along with Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and Production Designer Ceasar Macarron, del Toro has created a very believable environment. He does a great job of juxtaposing the beautiful, yet empty landscape outside of the orphanage with all of the ugly things which exist and occur inside of it. The building itself is weathered and old, and it's hard to believe that it was built just for this film. (On the extra features, del Toro gives a weird explanation for why the building looks the way that it does.) The bomb embedded in the courtyard is obviously a striking image, but for me, the design of the ghost is the pinnacle of the film. I don't want to spoil this for those who haven't seen the film, but the ghost's appearance represents the environment in which the person died and this simple, yet genius notion creates a spirit the likes of which we haven't seen.

While The Devil's Backbone is a visual masterpiece, when it comes to the story, there are some issues. This first point truly is nitpicking, but knowing that the film would be viewed outside of Spain, del Toro should have added just a few seconds of information giving more detail on the Spanish Civil War, something about which I'm willing to bet most viewers know nothing. Beyond that, the story, which may feel small and isolated at times, actually tries to cover too much ground. Essentially, del Toro and Co-writers Antonio Trashorras and Daniel Munoz have combined two main ideas here -- the story of a haunted orphanage and the story of a desperate man who wants to rob a haunted orphanage. These two stories do eventually merge, but the intersection doesn't gel very well. I found myself far more interested in the ghost story than in Jacinto's plan. This is yet another example of a horror film where a human threat poses a far greater danger than the supernatural one.

Don't get me wrong, The Devil's Backbone (whose title comes from a birth defect) isn't a bad film, it simply feels like an incomplete one. The film's setting is unique and its look is marvelous, but the story takes a backseat to these things. The finale is somewhat satisfying, but given del Toro apparent creativity, it's also very predictable. At times, I feel that I like del Toro better as a producer than as a director, as some themes similar to those in The Devil's Backbone were explored in the del Toro produced The Orphanage to a much better effect.

The Devil's Backbone isn't going to give you any more soap on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of The Criterion Collection. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source material. The film is a contrast of bright, daytime scenes and dark nighttime ones, and they all look great. The bright scenes don't show any unnecessary grain (which is good) and the nighttime scenes aren't overly dark. The colors look good, especially those which stand out against the beige surroundings. The image is very detailed and never soft, and it shows nice depth. I've seen some Criterion releases in the past which had disappointing transfers, but this looks good. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.8 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are well-done and highlight sounds occurring off-screen. These effects show good separation. The surround sound effects come to life during crowd scenes and when Carlos is hearing noises in the building. These are distinct and separate from the front channels. The subwoofer chimes in during the explosions, showing off deep bass tones.

The Devil's Backbone Blu-ray Disc contains an abundance of extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Writer/Director Guillermo del Toro which was originally recorded in 2004. del Toro has also recorded an Introduction (48 seconds) for the film in which he explains that the movie is meant to be a companion piece to Pan's Labyrinth. Viewers can opt to watch the film with "del Toro's Thumbnails", which will bring up drawings by the director during key scenes. "Summoning Spirits" (14 minutes) is a modern interview with del Toro in which he discusses the story and themes of the film. The piece places a lot of emphasis on the design of the film's ghost -- we see many concept drawings. "Que es Un Fantasma?" (27 minutes) is a making-of featurette from 2004 which offers interviews with the filmmakers and the cast, as well as on-set footage. We see the design and construction of the sets, as well as a peak at the creation of the special effects makeup. "Spanish Gothic" (18 minutes) is another interview with del Toro. This time he talks about the gothic influences on The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, touching on the original screenplay of The Devil's Backbone and how it was changed. "Director's Notebook" is an interactive gallery which features drawings by del Toro and short videos in which he explains certain concepts. Through storyboards and what appears to be a comic strip, the look of the film and the production design is explored in "Designing The Devil's Backbone" (12 minutes). The Disc contains four DELETED SCENES which run about 4 minutes and can be viewed with commentary by del Toro. "Sketch, Storyboard, Screen" offers side-by-side comparisons of initial artwork and the finished film. In "A War of Values" (14 minutes), Sebastiaan Faber talks about the Spanish Civil War and how it both influences the story and how it is represented in the story. The final extra is a TRAILER for the film.

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.