El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone)

El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) posterRated R
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Spanish with English Subtitles
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo Del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David Munoz


First and foremost, this is a ghost story. The first line of the film is “What is a phantasm?” But it’s not a gratuitous gore flick with senseless pop-up special effects like the dismal “13 Ghosts” which I saw but couldn’t bring myself to review (I’d have given it an “F” for those of you wondering).

Truly original films make high concept comparisons fall a bit short, but what the hell. If pressed, I might say “The Devil’s Backbone” was “Lord of the Flies” meets “Tales From The Crypt.” The story takes place in a boys orphanage during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), a wonderful setting that evokes the same kind of Gothic dread that Nicole Kidman’s post WWI English mansion did in “The Others”.

“The Devil’s Backbone” was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who has made two previous horror films; “Cronos” in 1992, and the much bigger Hollywood horror film, “Mimic,” in 1997.

In interviews, del Toro has confided that this project saw its first inception about 16 years ago, and the story was originally set during the Mexican Revolution. Del Toro wrote it as a thesis for his film school screenwriting class in Mexico. He’d intended to make it his directorial debut, but obstacles sprang up, and it wasn’t until the commercial success of “Mimic” that he was able to dust it off. The old story was then combined with a Spanish script he’d discovered (hence the other writers) and he set to work. A labor of love, “The Devil’s Backbone” took a long time to get off the ground, but it is well worth it.

It’s a shame that some people will not see it because of its limited release at mostly art house cinemas, and the subtitles (yes, it’s in Spanish) will scare away others, but many of those who miss “The Devil’s Backbone” will still get a dose of del Toro when his “Blade II” (starring Wesley Snipes) appears in theaters this next year. Del Toro (only 36) is a rising young director and is not afraid to push the horror genre into new and surprising directions. He can do both art house and mainstream. He has a bright future ahead.


The Spanish Civil War is raging on. Twelve-year old Carlos is left by his tutor at the Santa Lucia orphanage — a remote location about a day’s walk from the nearest town. Unbeknownst to him, Carlos’s father has been killed, orphaning him, and his tutor has become too wrapped up in fighting against the Fascists to care for the young boy any longer.

The orphanage, already a scary place for a twelve-year old, becomes even scarier upon examination. In the courtyard is a huge unexploded bomb embedded in the earth and minutes upon his arrival, Carlos catches a glimpse of a boy’s ghost peering at him from a nearby doorframe.

By happenstance, Carlos is assigned to Bed #12 — Santi’s bed. Santi is “the one who whispers,” as the other boys call him. Slowly, as he makes friends with the other orphans, Carlos pieces together the mystery behind the ghostly boy whose bed he has inherited.
Besides the mystery of Santi, there are other plots afoot. The orphanage is run by Carmen, a fifty-something widow whose husband died fighting Franco. She lost a leg in the war, herself, but unlike her husband, has no peace, and must fight on to secure a life for the many orphans whose leftist families have died for the Cause. Carmen is helped by Dr. Casares, who has held a deep love for Carmen since even before her husband’s death, but cannot bring himself to express his desire.

Carmen has stashed several bars of gold in a secret safe to help with the war effort, but ironically, the leftists cannot sneak the gold away to buy weapons, nor can Carmen trade it for food to feed her children. It remains useless, collecting dust and unwanted attention…until…

Jacinto, a former student who has grown into a handsome but evil schemer, has come back to the orphanage after being away for years. He works as a handyman alongside Conchita, a sexy young maid who thinks she is his one true love. However, Jacinto has climbed into Carmen’s bed. The young man is appalled by the older, one-legged woman, but feigns interest so he can root around her bedroom in search for the key to her secret safe filled with gold. His plan is to rob the gold and then run off with Conchita to start a new life.

Meanwhile, Carlos works to uncover the reason for Santi’s ghostly visitations. In one particularly memorable scene (from which the film’s title is derived) Carlos expresses his fear of ghosts to Dr. Casares. The doctor guides him over to several amber-colored jars filled with aborted babies. One of the floating homunculi has had the flesh around its spine stripped away to expose the ribbon of bone. The doctor retrieves a dipper and siphons off a shotglass full of the rum that surrounds the creature. This elixir, he explains, is sold to the superstitious peasants in the surrounding villages as a general cure-all and helps buy food (Carmen’s gold, remember, is useless). A drink of the amber fluid is supposed to clear away evil maladies.

In much the same way, Carlos finds that Santi was murdered and drowned in an underground pool beneath the orphanage. In his visitations, Santi appears to be floating, trapped in amber fluid much like the homunculus. The boy’s ghost warns that many will die if they do not leave the orphanage immediately, but the threat still remains unknown…
Read no further if you don’t want the ending revealed!

Here’s the ending:
It turns out that Jacinto accidentally killed Santi in a scuffle after Santi spied the man tinkering with the hidden safe of gold. Jacinto drowned the dead boy in the underground pool.

On an excursion to the nearby town, Dr. Casares discovers that a leftist soldier that they had previously sheltered might have revealed that the orphanage has leftist leanings. Casares insists upon his return that they must all flee for safer shelter before Franco’s minions arrive. Carmen agrees and moves to take the gold from its hiding place.

Seeing his chance to secretly steal the gold go up in smoke, Jacinto reveals his evil streak and tries to take the gold. He is turned away, but returns later and blows up the safe — killing Carmen and many of the orphans — and bringing about the doom that Santi had foretold.

The doctor is mortally wounded, also, and cannot defend the boys from Jacinto, but Santi instructs the boys to lure Jacinto to the underground pool. There, the boys await Jacinto with sharpened wood spears (á la “Lord of the Flies”) and skewer him like a stuck pig. Jacinto, helpless and bleeding, falls into the pool and is claimed by Santi’s ghost.

The boys then abandon the violent scene and walk out into the countryside, presumably to leave the war behind and search for a peaceful new beginning.