The Devil’s Backbone: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

July 30, 2013 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton and Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

As the Spanish Civil War has raged ahead, countless children are orphaned and left with little hope, but there are some places for them for them to turn. One such option is the Santa Lucia School, a massive old stone structure that houses the orphaned children of military personnel and politicians involved in the conflict. The newest arrival to Santa Lucia is twelve year old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), an inquisitive and intelligent young person. Santa Lucia is sympathetic to the Republican side in the skirmish and Carlos’ father was a fallen heroic soldier for the cause, which means school leaders Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Professor Cesares (Federico Luppi) keep a close eye on his condition. Though Carlos finds himself tormented by the school’s bully, he is able to overcome the situation, but he remains uncomfortable at Santa Lucia. As time passes, Carlos begins to experience some unusual things, such as an off limits room near the well, stories about the institution’s past, and most unusual, the presence of a ghost. As invading forces close in on the area and an unexploded bomb looms over them, what will become of the orphans of Santa Lucia and what happened to cause these strange events to transpire?

If you’re like me, you love a good supernatural thriller, but you’re just about fed up with the ones that use suckerpunch, gimmick twist endings. Yes, these can be fun, but they become more about the last five minutes, instead of a complete motion picture. As such, The Devil’s Backbone is like a fresh breeze, as it relies on atmosphere, visuals, and tension throughout the movie, not just a bland focus on a string of flashbacks just before the end credits. The suspense and tensions creeps in from not just the supernatural realm either, as the constant threat of attack and the ever present bomb in the courtyard add to the thick tension. As I watched The Devil’s Backbone, I was getting the vibes I get when watching old school ghost pictures, as it has little blood and cheap scare effects, but instead a well crafted sense of eerie atmosphere, simply marvelous work. The film becomes more and more effective as the plot unfolds, but as I mentioned, this is no gimmick picture, the finale is well done and delivers good closure. I recommend this to anyone interested in supernatural suspense and Columbia has loosed a nice disc, so don’t hesitate to check this out.

It is rare these days to find a supernatural thriller that plays by the old school rules, but director Guillermo Del Toro has delivered one with The Devil’s Backbone. After the success of The Sixth Sense, it seems that filmmakers want to use the twist ending in every genre picture, which means the twist loses more & more power each time. I wasn’t surprised in The Sixth Sense, The Others, or any other more recent twist ending fiasco, though the latter did supply some nice atmosphere. With this film, Del Toro uses eerie visuals, atmosphere, and skill to craft his thriller, not just the twist at the end, buckets of blood, or cheap shock scares. The result is a strong, very effective thriller and I hope to see others follow this formula, as opposed to going for the cheap tricks. Other films by Del Toro include Cronos, Mimic, and Blade II. The cast includes Eduardo Noriega (Open Your Eyes, Thesis), Marisa Paredes (All About My Mother, Life is Beautiful), Federico Luppi (The Girlfriend, The Place That Was Paradise), and Fernando Tielve (The Shanghai Spell).

Video: How does it look?

Not surprisingly, a new digital transfer was minted for this Criterion release and I have to say that the result is really nothing short of spectacular.  The 1.85:1 AVC HD image is so heads and tails better than the previous DVD I really don’t know where to begin.  For starters, the overall detail is vastly improved.  I noticed facial expressions that I didn’t before, little things like the texture in clothes and the terrain.  Black levels and contrast work very well off one another giving the movie a very improved and more saturated look to it.  It’s not perfect, of course, but given the way the previous edition looked this Blu-ray is yet another that Criterion has hit out of the park.

Audio: How does it sound?

If your Spanish isn’t up to par, that’s ok as this disc contains an English translation, though the primary audio mix is a DTS HD Master Audio (in Spanish, of course).  I wouldn’t have thought that the audio would have made that much more of an impact than it did, but I have to give props to Criterion as this new lossless mix is, like the video, so much better than the original.  Little creaks in the rear speakers make their presence known, the booming dialogue sound excellent and the front-heavy mix all combine to make for what it an excellent all around audio experience.

Supplements: What are the extras?

A majority of Criterion’s releases that come to Blu-ray are previously existing releases that maybe get a new audio or video track.  That’s not to say that they’re “bad” by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s with a release like this that shows what Criterion has been known for and is truly capable of producing.  We start out with an introduction by writer/director Guillermo del Toro. Recorded in 2010 it’s brief, running at only a minute, but it’s a nice touch.  The same audio commentary that was on the standard DVD is present here, but it’s a good compliment to have on this movie.  Another interesting feature is “Del Toro’s Thumbnails” and when this feature is activated, we get to see the sketches that Del Toro made for this film and their corresponding placement in the film.  “Summoning Spirits” is an interview with Del Toro as he discusses the character of Santi and the accompanying special effects in which the character appeared.  “Que es un fantasma?” is a documentary shot in 2004 and gives us the history of the film.  Interviews with the cast and crew make it a great watch.  In “Spanish Gothic” Del Toro tells us of his inspiration for the film after a trip to Spain and how he incorporated those ideas into the final film.  “Director’s Notebook” is an interactive gallery of drawings and conceptual art.  Clicking on these gives on screen comments by Del Toro.  “Designing the Devil’s Backbone” is a newly-recorded feature detailing some of the work of the production crew and their contribution to the final film.  We get a quartet of deleted scenes as well as some storyboard comparisons (circa 2004).  “A War of Values” is a new interview with Sebastian Faber who wrote Exile and Cultural Hegemony as he discusses some political views shown in the film. The original trailer is shown and a booklet with an essay by Mark Kermode is also included.

Disc Scores