The Devil's Backbone Movie Review
Sublimely atmospheric but erratically chilling, "The Devil's Backbone" is a promising Spanish spooker about a haunted orphanage, but it's too hung up on being more than just a ghost story.
Taking place during the Spanish Civil War, the film opens during a nighttime bombing raid in which a huge ordnance slams the building's courtyard but doesn't explode.
Months later when a war orphan named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is abandoned at the remote, dilapidated institution, the rusting hulk of the bomb still sticks straight up out of the ground, looming over the day-to-day lives of the children and their caretakers.
But eerier things are afoot at the Santa Lucia School. The same night the bomb fell, one of the children disappeared, and now his ghost has come calling for Carlos, who has been given the missing boy's bed.
If director Guillermo Del Toro (who tried his luck in Hollywood with 1997's "Mimic") knows anything, it's how to sustain a goosepimply sensation for a whole movie. "Backbone" is never out-and-out scary, but the apprehension that begins with the bomb punching into the ground never entirely subsides.
The ghost is an amazing apparition, a hollow-eyed child who appears semi-transparent and wavering as if underwater, with a head wound from which a cloud of blood flows. His whispers have been heard by most of the kids, who call him "the one who sighs." But Carlos is the only person to see him, and eventually the boy overcomes his fear and learns that the spirit wants help avenging his murder.
So far, so good. But in building up to the circumstances surrounding the murder, Del Toro loses a lot of momentum on the stories of the school's staff. An elderly teacher (Frederico Luppi) pines away for the icy, peg-legged headmistress (Marisa Paredes, "All About My Mother"), the politically outspoken widow of a leftist poet. A beautiful young teacher (Berta Ojea) meets at night with the spiteful young groundsman (Eduardo Noriega, "Open Your Eyes"), who grew up in the orphanage and is plotting against the others to steal gold hidden in the school and start a new life.
Some of this plays into the ghost story. Some of it serves to flesh out the characters. But none of it is integrated well enough to stop you from wondering when the spooky stuff will pick up again.
When "Backbone" does return to the supernatural and plot points relevent to it, Del Toro can make anything and everything seem portentous -- shadows, stairs, an empty kitchen, and especially the vast, stonemasonry basement of the orphanage, which seems to be nothing but frightful nooks and crannies, save the large, murky pool of stored water in the middle, which is the most ominous thing of all.
But even with its uncanny atmosphere, the distracting inconsistency of suspense prevents the film from really taking hold of your senses and sucking you in.