Ghosts Of War
by Emmet Barlow
Before enlightening our screens with his epically imaginative and vividly searing imagery in Pan’s Labyrinth and exploding our eardrums with the mega monster vs metal clash, Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro toured the turmoil of Spain’s darkest 20th century days, with The Devil’s Backbone.
The picture is set in the bitter twilight of the Spanish Civil War. Carlos, an unknown orphan, is left at the gates of the Santa Lucia School for young boys. With little access to food and water, and saddled with feelings of alienation and bullying, Carlos’ troubles are cemented as he unravels the dark sinews that bind those around him and a vengeful spirit tragically condemned to scour the grounds of this ill-begotten school.
Fluctuating between day and night, the picture is beautifully shot. Its glowing orange and red palette is countered by haunting greys and imposing blocks of black, as Del Toro breathes life into the daunting shadows. The Devil’s Backbone is a gothic hike through a war that still haunts Spanish culture, a wound also touched upon in Pan’s Labyrinth and poignantly summarised in The Devil’s Backbone’s opening line: “A tragedy condemned to repeat itself for all time”.
The film is paced differently from its genre siblings; Del Toro builds brooding tension along an incline, plateauing occasionally to ingest one more slice of information in this creepy and atmospheric whodunit plot line. Despite occasionally stumbling over its own ambitious narrative, the film finds its feet with a warm and accomplished climax. The Devil’s Backbone is less of an explosive tap-tap-bang horror, and a film that utilises its storytelling stamina to flex its many narrative capabilities and form a poignant and creepy physique.