No matter what your native tongue, the Spanish-language “Devil’s Backbone” is sure to give you a serious case of the creeps. The title is nearly irrelevant; one imagines it was chosen just so critics would say, “‘The Devil’s Backbone‘ will send shivers up your spine!” Which is accurate, if trite.
It is written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, and produced by Pedro Almodóvar, who wrote and directed “All About My Mother.” But it recalls the work of another Spanish director, Alejandro Amenábar, who gave us “The Others.” This film doesn’t adhere to that one’s policy of no onscreen violence, but it does make the same excellent use of ominous sound mixing and a really creepy ghost. (It invites comparison to “The Sixth Sense,” too, particularly with the notion that when ghosts come back, it’s because they want something.)
The setting is the Spanish Civil War, where a boarding school is now a de facto orphanage for the children of Republicans who have died in battle. We meet young Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a well-behaved, curious newcomer who immediately runs afoul of the school bully Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), while being protected by the kindly Dr. Cesares (Federico Luppi) and wooden-legged headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes). There’s also a maintenance man to worry about, the amoral Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), whose first scene with Carmen may indeed shock you.
There is much intrigue to be had at the school. Not long ago, a bomb was dropped in the courtyard, but it failed to explode. It has since been defused, and now it sits as a monument to the good fortune of those who live there. However, the night it landed, a boy disappeared.
I am reminded again of “The Others” in the careful way “The Devil’s Backbone” reveals information. For the first half of the film, nearly every scene adds some new detail that makes the situation more fraught with gleeful horror than you had previously supposed. The school is a day’s walk from town. Carlos sleeps in the bed formerly inhabited by someone called “Santi.” Students make hushed references to “one who sighs.” Creepiest of all, a ghostly voice tells Carlos: “Many of you will die.”
Del Toro makes his allegories subtly; you could watch the film as nothing more than a ghost story that turns into a macabre vengeance tale and not miss anything. But surely there is meaning in the boys’ banding together, bolstered by the knowledge that though their enemy may be strong, “there are more of us” than there are of him. The politics of the film’s adult characters figure into things, too.
First and foremost, however, this is a ghost story, and a top-notch scary one, too. It ends a bit too easily and some of the conventions of movie-making bother me — how come the only people who ever fall in the water are people who can’t swim? — but these are minor complaints surrounded by a host of compliments for this dread-filled, eerie campfire story.
A- (; )