As an odd, stylized cross between “Hamlet,” “Oliver Twist,” and “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” surely defies being pigeonholed into a single genre. It is a scattered product: part-romance, part-spaghetti western, part-coming-of-age story, and part-gothic horror all pressed into one box. Yet somehow, all these random elements coalesce into a story that is fluid and memorable.
Set near the end of the Spanish Civil War, “The Devil’s Backbone” stars Fernando Tielve as twelve year-old Carlos, the newest pupil at St. Lucia’s, a remote boy’s school governed by the kind Dr. Casares (Federico Lippi) and a one-legged headmistress (Marisa Peredes) named Carmen. All of this, amidst an extinct bomb rusting in the school’s courtyard, an unspoken love, and the mournful ghost of a boy called “the one who sighs.”
Settling in, Carlos fields some hazing as “the new kid,” while standing up to the teenage Jamie
(Inigo Garces) and learning to avoid Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a volatile ex-student of St. Lucia’s and its current caretaker, who plots to steal a cache of gold used to buy food and supplies. In this tense setting, Carlos makes the best of his situation, sharing toys with new friends, and leering over Jamie’s crude drawings of naked girls. But during the night, Carlos finds himself face to face with St. Lucia’s ghost, who ominously warns that “most you will die.” Although frightened at first, Carlos later tries to appease the spectral boy by learning what he wants. And like many lost souls, the ghost explains he desires revenge against the one who wronged him.
Director Del Toro (“Chronos,” “Mimic”) presents something in “The Devil’s Backbone” that is clean and exotic, if a little predictable. His kids are the story’s most entertaining part, goofing off like a crustier–but as innocent–version of “The Little Rascals” in their school’s gloomy halls. And most of Del Toro’s adults–which form as tragic a piece of his story–are also as interesting and compelling to relate to. However, the ghost of “The Devil’s Backbone” (the most visible part of the story) is not so much scary, as he is fun, taking a nice edge off the narrative that relieves any cheap comparisons to “The Sixth Sense.”
That “The Devil’s Backbone” makes any sense at all–with its many, swirling plotlines–seems like a little wonder. But that’s precisely what the movie is, as it is the most polished work that Del Toro has created in some time.