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“Que Es Un Fantasma?” Josh Reviews The Devil’s Backbone!

I really enjoyed his two Hellboy films, but it was the beautiful, wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth that made me a fan of Guillermo del Toro for life.

Since I think so highly of his recent films, I decided it was high time that I sought out some of his older works.  Which lead me to The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro’s Spanish-language film from 2001.

As was Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone is set during the Spanish Civil War.  As the movie opens, a twelve-year-old orphan named Carlos is left at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere.  As Carlos struggles to settle in to his new home and find his place amongst the boys there (some of whom are friendly, and some of whom are cruel) and the stern adults (all of whom have their own stories and their own problems), he discovers what he believes to be “the one who sighs,” the ghost of a missing boy named Santi.  As the Spanish Civil War lurches towards its conclusion, the plight of everyone at the orphanage becomes more dire, and the terrible secrets of what happened to Santi at last come to light.

Del Toro is a master at combining emotional, character-driven stories with a touch of the fantastic.  Pan’s Labyrinth might be his masterpiece in this area (so far), but The Devil’s Backbone gives that film quite a run for its money.  Right from it’s opening moments it is gripping and genuinely creepy.  This isn’t a film that is all about special effects or big “money shots” of monsters and creatures.  No, it’s a story about desperate people in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  The supernatural element is almost secondary — which, to me, is what makes that supernatural element so effective when it enters the story.

As I watched this film it became clear to me that del Toro has quite a way with child actors.  Just as Ivana Baquero was so terrific as Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, young Fernando Tielve is quite compelling here as Carlos.  So much of the film’s story rests on his shoulders, and he is just terrific. And he’s not alone.  There’s a large group of boys of varying ages at the orphanage, all of whom are very engaging.  The kids all feel real, and each boy has a distinct character and personality.  This is quite a feat.

I am not a fan of horror films, generally.  Scary, violent movies are a dime a dozen these days at one’s local cineplex.  But don’t dismiss The Devil’s Backbone because of all those other terrible films.  This is a terrific, engaging, unique story, and one that I can’t wait to watch again.

In the mean-time, I think I need to track down del Toro’s 1993 film, Chronos.  Gotta do something until he and Peter Jackson unleash The Hobbit upon the world in 2012…!

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