“What is a ghost?” ponders Dr. Cásares (Federico Luppi) during the dreamy montage of horrors that opens The Devil’s Backbone. “A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time, like a blurred photograph, like an insect trapped in amber.”
For his third film, Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro has fashioned a great, old-fashioned chiller, a ghost story that is about the terrors of the living as well as those of the restless dead. The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo) shares the quiet beauty, dignity and grace of The Sixth Sense, even though at first glance it more closely resembles The Others, an inferior film also set in an isolated manor house during the waning days of a recent war.
The lost boys at the desolate Santa Lucia School are orphans of the Spanish Civil War, children whose parents fought in the leftist resistance against fascist dictator Francisco Franco. They live in what looks like an abandoned castle in the middle of a blazing desert, and the outside world occasionally intrudes on their solitude, like the night a huge bomb fell from the sky, slid into the mud of the courtyard, yet never exploded. When the smart, observant 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is dropped off at Santa Lucia by partisan friends of his late father, he’s told that the great bomb has been defused and is now perfectly safe. But its looming, eerie presence is a hint of the mayhem to come.
Del Toro, who co-wrote the script with Antonio Trashorras and David Muñoz, divides the story expertly between the perspective of the boys and the adults who care for them with flawed good intentions. The headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), is a strong-willed widow who knows she has too many mouths to feed, but guards her charges with a single-minded ferocity. Cásares is her ardent, poetry-reciting admirer, a doctor for both the schoolboys and nearby villagers. Cásares is given charge of sensitive newcomers like Carlos.
Then there’s the brooding caretaker, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), an orphan who grew up at Santa Lucia and recently returned, seeking refuge from the war. He’s engaged to the cook, Conchita (Irene Visedo), a lovely young woman with hidden reservoirs of strength and determination. But the tightly wound, angry, virile and restless Jacinto is more dangerous than that unexploded bomb.
Meanwhile, the boys create a world of their own, engaging in pranks and dares which take on added significance because they acknowledge both the danger which brought them to Santa Lucia in the first place and the mysterious presence of “the one who sighs,” a ghost who is somehow connected to Jaime (Iñigo Garces), the school’s bullying, teenage alpha male. Jaime takes an instant dislike to Carlos and tries to hinder his assimilation, but as the new boy begins to encounter the terrifying phantasm, he swallows his fear and tries to uncover the truth.
That a ghost exists at Santa Lucia is treated with a welcome matter-of-factness. As in his previous films — the sublime vampire tale Cronos (1992) and his English-language Mimic (1997), which deals with the unexpected ramifications of genetic engineering — Del Toro creates a portentous atmosphere for his characters in The Devil’s Backbone (the title refers to a birth defect Cásares cites to differentiate between science and superstition). The terrain they inhabit is where the shadow world meets the rational one. Both are equally valid, Del Toro asserts, and equally dangerous.
The ghost was once a boy named Santi (Junio Valverde), and he’s a marvelous example of what special effects can achieve when married with a rich imagination: He’s a Day of the Dead figure come to life, translucent skin showing his bone structure and musculature, a head wound gushing blood heavenward. With Santi, Del Toro draws on deep-rooted traditions to anchor this supernatural tale in recognizable reality.
What Del Toro provides with The Devil’s Backbone is the recognition that evil exists within the most routine of circumstances. That knowledge is as old as humanity’s belief in the fantastic, and just as powerful.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.