The ghosts in Guillermo del Toro’s richly atmospheric horror story The Devil’s Backbone belong as much to history as they do to the supernatural. The Mexican-born director, who previously indulged his artistic taste for the creepy with the 1994 vampire fantasy Cronos and the 1997 mutant bugfest Mimic, here peers at the most chilling terror of all—the effect of war on children. As the Spanish Civil War churns out orphans, 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is placed for safekeeping in a strange, dilapidated boys’ boarding school in the middle of Spanish nowhere, run by a kindly leftist doctor (Federico Luppi), who collects deformed fetuses and stillborn babies in jars, and the one-legged headmistress he loves (Marisa Paredes). Elsewhere, a handsome handyman and former student (Eduardo Noriega) hints at evil.
Much of the action takes place at night, or in dark corridors, where Carlos frequently encounters, Sixth Sense-like, a dead-boy phantom whose head appears to have been bashed; some of the horrors also take place underwater, or in a school courtyard impaled by a fat, unexploded Fascist bomb. And as Carlos rattles around his sad turf (bathed by day in a parched amber light, by night in the greenish shadows of bad dreams), del Toro builds excitement, dread, and melodrama in equal layers.
Although The Devil’s Backbone is anchored in bloody history—real people bled and died on Spanish soil, and real orphans watched their childhoods burn—the picture also shares an Iberian-flavored compatibility with The Others by Alejandro Amenábar. Both directors know when to reveal their ghosts and when simply to suggest them so quietly as to pleasurably levitate neck hairs. A-