The Devil's Backbone (2001) (R)

Guillermo del Toro's vision of horror was often met with indifference before the director released his masterpiece: "The Devil's Backbone". Everything that makes fantasy great, everything that makes horror enjoyable, and everything that entails a cohesive and lovely drama are all found here. Though it is revered, I would argue that "The Devil's Backbone" often gets replaced by "Pan's Labyrinth" which reaffirmed everything first stated here. We have war, fantasy, children's dreams, and the thought that the worst horror villain of all is quite simply human...nothing more.
The movie begins with the question: what makes a ghost? Why does a person become trapped on Earth, or why does their essence? Is it a moment of pain? The recreation of emotion? A key feature for the success of "The Devil's Backbone" is that it never tries to answer that question and allows the viewer to make their own inferences.
We cut to a young boy being brought to school in the middle of a desert during the time of the Spanish Civil War. Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is the son of a man who is presumably dead from the war, though Carlos seems intent to believe that one day his father will return.
Carmen (Marisa Paredes) is the woman who heads up the orphanage/school and her complexity is not evident in the first scenes that we are allowed to view her. Her right hand man is Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi who also took the lead in del Toro's "Cronos") and she suggest that Casares try to befriend the little Carlos, who was not expecting an orphanage and desertion.
There is a bomb in the middle of the courtyard of the school. It was dropped by a plane and never went off, so it sits with its tail sticking into the air, disarmed. One of the boys claims that it is still working and he tells Carlos that if you put your ear to it, you can still hear it ticking.
The conflict isn't immediately evident and I like that. Guillermo del Toro doesn't have to make us crave a plot first thing, he lets the beautiful style become the first aspect noticed and then the plot follows. It is very measure, very evenly paced, and wonderfully executed...just on its timing alone, the film is a wonderful success—it is neither too slow nor too fast.
One of the other boys named Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) is the big man on campus. This boy is older and larger than all the others and seems to be the ringleader in the pranks they sometimes pull.
One of the first nights that he is present at the school, Carlos is woken up by the whispered sound of his name sighing through the halls. There is a legend that a ghost haunts the school, named "The One Who Sighs". 
Carlos is too new to be afraid of such an apparition, so he shakes it off and pretends not to notice; but this is a boy who is very observant. He sees reflections in glass, footprints made from water, and he hears the noises too.
When he finally thinks he has enough evidence, he goes to Dr. Casares, who scares Carlos into thinking that nothing is the matter. 
As this is going on, the war continues to rage outside the walls of the school and the claustrophobia of it all begins to bother the audience more than the characters. "The Devil's Backbone" makes you feel isolated, and yet transported. The film is marvelous for being set in essentially one location and never letting its limitations breed monotony.
The days continue to transpire and Carlos becomes more and more certain that a ghost is haunting the school, the question becomes what will happen with the supernatural and the tangible collide, particularly when the voices in the corridors whisper "Many will die."
"The Devil's Backbone" is one of the truest examples of atmospheric horror. It is very rare to find a jump scare in this movie, instead relying on the general feeling of it all to unnerve you. It's a pristine example of this kind of thriller as well.
Del Toro's eye is always fixated on the terrible beauty of the world and here he finds his best canvas to paint on.
"The Devil's Backbone" is chilling and uplifting, it's a sensational roller coaster of a ride that manages to balance each of its many zeniths in a coherent, cohesive, watchable, and intensely wonderful works.

Score: ★★★★

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