El Espinazo del Diablo (2001) / Drama-Horror
aka The Devil's Backbone

MPAA Rated: R for violence, language, some sexuality, and disturbing images
Running Time: 106 min.

Cast: Fernando Tielve, Inigo Garces, Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Irene Visedo, Marisa Paredes, Junio Valverde
Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Munoz
Review published February 27, 2003

Slowly but surely, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Mimic, Blade II) has been crafting a nice little career for himself as a director of atmospheric horror, and El Espinazo del Diablo (or The Devil's Backbone, as it's known in the English-language release) is probably his best outing yet.  Unlike his previous two efforts, del Toro has more hands-on say in the production, having co-written the screenplay and serving as the film's producer, and the result is much more satisfying.  He finally has a vehicle worthy of his talents in creeping us out.

It's set in Spain of 1939, with the country in the middle of a turbulent civil war.  Out in the middle of nowhere lies a small orphanage for young boys, and Carlos is the latest unwelcome guest there, as the establishment is running low on food and supplies as it is.  Carlos has a lot to prove, as the local bully makes life difficult, and even worse, he thinks he sees the ghost of another young boy following him around.  Meanwhile, the young caretaker of the orphanage has his eyes set on the stash of gold bars in the safe on site, and nothing is going to stand in his way for quick wealth.  Oh yeah, and the ghost isn't helping matters with his proclamation that many will die soon.

El Espinazo del Diablo is reminiscent of the recent classical-style atmospheric films by Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, Abre Los Ojos), especially with the inclusion of Amenabar's oft-used actor, Eduardo Noriega.  There is a methodical build-up in the plot, a slow boil in tension, and lots of time for quiet contemplation in between.  Although it may be classified as a horror movie by many, this isn't your typical scare flick, and the ghost element is actually just a supporting storyline.  The ghost is sympathetic as well as terrifying, as we aren't really sure if the young boy intends to be helpful or harmful to the rest of the kids. 

With the patient but effective direction of del Toro, the nice cinematography by Guillermo Navarro (Spy Kids, Desperado), and a quality acting job from a cast of mostly young talent, El Espinazo del Diablo ranks as one of the better horror dramas of recent years.  It's not your typical scare-a-thon, leaving you with a sense of haunting rather than fear, but quite effective in execution.  If you loved The Others, you should definitely seek out this lesser-known gem for an evening of intelligent, tension-filled suspense.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo