Guillermo Del Toro’s Spanish horror-fantasy film The Devil’s Backbone is a unique ghost story for its time, given the film’s setting during the Spanish Civil War and the morally ambiguous nature of the ghosts found in the film. In telling the story of a small orphanage in rural Spain in the early 1930s, haunted by a small boy named Santi whose death provides one of the central mysteries, The Devil’s Backbone mixes the high fantasy of fairy tales with the gritty despair of one of Spain’s most tumultuous historical periods. As evidenced in the opening scene of the film, Guillermo Del Toro’s compellingly painterly filmmaking style elevates the ghost story to the level of poignant moral fantasy, and establishes the director, even in his early works, as one of the most vibrant Spanish-language filmmakers to break out into mainstream Western success.
The Devil’s Backbone is the third film by Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, whose first two films were 1993’s Spanish-language vampire film Cronos (also starring Federico Luppi) and 1997’s English-language horror film Mimic. Returning to his roots, The Devil’s Backbone continues the tradition set by Cronos, and continued in his critically-acclaimed 2006 follow-up Pan’s Labyrinth, of mixing fantastical horror elements with a complexity of style and theme that elevates them in terms of sophistication. While Del Toro is most known in America for comic-book movies and CGI homages to monster movies like the Hellboy series and Pacific Rim, Del Toro’s Spanish-language films feel more personal and spiritual, and The Devil’s Backbone is no exception.
As an example of Mexican and/or Spanish cinema, The Devil’s Backbone stands out as one of the more critically-acclaimed examples of Spanish-language horror and drama films that has achieved mainstream success internationally (Lazaro-Reboll 39). By telling the story of the Spanish Civil War, Del Toro cements the film in a vital moment of Spain’s history, in which the working class attempted a socialist revolution against the domineering King Alfonso which eventually failed. In many ways, the effects of this war and Spain’s perception of it in the 2000s (as a lamentable cultural mistake that led to the loss of many lives under 40 years of fascistic rule) heavily informs the attitude The Devil’s Backbone takes toward war (Lazaro-Reboll 41). In the film, the Spanish Civil War is unequivocally a horrific thing that the adults (Cesares and Carmen) try to protect the children from, until the unscrupulous Jacinto brings the conflict to them by greedily working with the rebels to steal the orphanage’s gold. These plot elements are foreshadowed in the opening sequence, which quickly sets up the world and the overarching themes Del Toro presents within the story.
The opening minutes of the film quickly establish both Del Toro’s dreamlike style and the poignant themes of the film, which include the death of innocence, spirituality vs. cynicism, and the subtle pull of sexuality to motivate our actions. Set in an orphanage in 1939, during the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone opens with a dolly shot moving toward a door, with ghostly breathing and wind-blowing sound effects seemingly emanating from the door itself. Doctor Casares (Federico Luppi) asks in voiceover, “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again?” As the camera disappears into the dark entryway of the doorframe, the screen cuts to black, and Del Toro cuts to a top-down shot of a bomber hatch door opening and the bomb falling horizontally away from the camera into a dark, foggy Spanish night. These opening shots establish a kind of visual asymmetry, with the vertical doorframe explicitly contrasting the horizontal orientation of the hatch doors. All the same, these moments demonstrate the simple, tactile concerns of Del Toro, indicating (as per Casares’ narration) that all of these following moments are the moments in time that create the filmmakers’ thematic perception of a ‘ghost.’
The doors close, and the film cuts again, this time to the prone body of the dead Santi, blood pooling at the back of his head against the brick floor of the orphanage. Here, Casares points out this event as the origin of the film’s ghost: “An instant of pain, perhaps? Something dead which still seems to be alive.” The panicked, shallow breathing of Santi is interrupted by the hand of the orphanage’s bully, Jaime, looking terrified at the bloody hand he holds up. By placing these fractured images together – the bomb, the dying boy – the viewer is invited to read the two things as cause and effect: viewing a falling object, then cutting to a boy with a head wound, implies the falling of the bomb caused the injury. While this is certainly not an explicit connection between the bomb and Santi’s wound, this instills a thematic connection between the weapons of war and its consequences on innocent lives (Brinks 291). Santi is representative of the unsuspecting lives that are cut short by the iniquities of war – a crime which is compounded by the loss of innocence of the horrified Jaime. While Santi is the one who dies, this act of violence claims two victims when you count Jaime.
After this shot, Del Toro dissolves to an underwater shot of a murky pool, in which Santi’s body has now been thrown as Casares further describes a ghost as “an emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph.” Blood from Santi’s head wound trickles up toward the surface as the body falls toward the floor of the pool. Javier Navarette’s plaintive, strings-based score builds further as Del Toro cuts back to a medium shot of a crouched Jaime, panning up from the pool to show him crying over Santi’s death, implying that he is the one who did it. Del Toro then dissolves to a wide shot of the same thing, as Casares says, “Like an insect trapped in amber.” These shots finish the sequence on a moment of mystery and macabre unease, as Jaime’s crouched figure against the all-consuming pool (which itself now represents Santi himself and the sins that caused his death) makes him seem even smaller and more vulnerable. While the implication is that he is responsible for Santi’s death, his visible regret and sadness complicates the conflict beyond simple notions of good and evil.
Cesares’ narration runs throughout the opening sequence to establish that The Devil’s Backbone does not treat ghosts as a threat that must be vanquished or protected from, but the echoes of an injustice or a lost soul who must be put to rest. Santi’s presence throughout the film constantly echoes this sequence, his ghost walking the grounds with a floating rivulet of blood running from his temple as if he was still in the pool. Ghosts, according to Casares, are the remnants of a terrible memory or act, which remains on the earth until justice can be found – in between life or death. (As the film ends with Casares himself becoming a ghost, one can infer that he speaks from experience.) This uncanny nature of the ghost is utilized to great effect by Del Toro to create a manifestation of the terrible impact that the Spanish Civil War has on its people, and the families it tears apart, as illustrated through this opening sequence.
This opening sequence serves as a thematic precursor to the events that will follow throughout The Devil’s Backbone, and also establishes Del Toro’s spiritual, thematic perception of ghosts as the manifestation of cultural and impersonal injustices that cry out to be addressed. Santi’s ghost becomes representative of the greater violence and loss of innocence that is found in the orphanage and the Spanish Civil War itself – the environment of the orphanage is a ticking time bomb (as symbolized by the deactivated bomb that sits in the courtyard) whose neutrality will be disrupted at any moment by the violence that the Civil War brings. The presence of children as a central element in the movie furthers Del Toro’s anti-war themes, as the children’s innocence highlights the immense cost of war by making them the most tragic victims of armed conflict.
With its ethereal atmosphere and Gothic-fantasy tone, The Devil’s Backbone proves itself to be one of Guillermo Del Toro’s defining pictures. Exploring themes of innocence and war, as well as the intersection between fantasy and reality, The Devil’s Backbone is a profoundly affecting ghost story that uses the supernatural to explore greater emotional truths. The opening sequence economically sets up the emotional and thematic beats of the film from which the rest of the plot unfolds. Using the fairy-tale Gothic setting of an isolated orphanage, and telling the story through both the children’s and adult’s perspectives, The Devil’s Backbone allows the topic of the Spanish Civil War to be explored through multiple points of view, using the supernatural as a means to elevate these concerns to more universal discussions about morality, justice and innocence. Through this tale of good people fighting to maintain their innocence and purity, Guillermo Del Toro establishes himself as one of the most imaginative directors working in world cinema – an aesthetic he carries through into his mainstream American cinema work as well.
Brinks, Ellen. "’Nobody's Children’: Gothic Representation and Traumatic History in ‘The
Devil's Backbone’." JAC (2004): 291-312.
Del Toro, Guillermo (dir.). The Devil’s Backbone. Perf. Federico Luppi, Marisa Paredes,
Eduardo Noriega. Sony Pictures Classics, 2001. Film.
Lázaro-Reboll, Antonio. "The transnational reception of El espinazo del diablo (Guillermo del
Toro 2001)." Hispanic Research Journal 8.1 (2007): 39-51.