The Film (4/5)
Before the Internet, the only way I was truly able to find out about bizarre cult cinema was word of mouth, and books such as the Videohound Capsule Guides. The Videohound horror Encyclopedia purchased well over a decade and a half ago at this point gave me my first glimpse into the world of Mexican fantasist Guillermo Del Toro. In this book there was a single image, and a review of his debut film Cronos. It was an intriguing image of main character, Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) lying in pain against a wall with the Cronos Device adhered to his chest, between that image, and the accompanying review I was quick to seek out the film and everything else Del Toro had done at that point which had amounted to just Mimic. A few years later, he would follow those up with a film which could be arguably (and I stress arguably) his masterpiece The Spanish Civil War period piece The Devil's Backbone, just released on special edition Blu by The Criterion Collection.
The film takes place in the final weeks of the Spanish Civil War. Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is a ten year old boy whose Father has just died in combat. He is taken to the only refuge that can be provided to young boys in his condition, an orphanage in the desolate Spanish Countryside. There are two things that make this particular orphanage unique an unexploded bomb that lies dormant in the middle of the courtyard, and the ghost of a young boy named Santi who soon begins personally haunting Carlos after his arrival.
When I first saw Devil's Backbone on DVD roughly a decade ago, I enjoyed the film for it's visual splendor, but was slightly confused by it narratively speaking. Although, I was already familiar with Del Toro's work through Cronos, I had gone into it expecting more of a horror-oriented ghost story with a haunted house feel. What I received was more of an ensemble drama. The film starts out in a more traditional gothic horror vein with Carlos experiences with the ghost of Santi, acting almost as a Macguffin to get into the greater plot of gold, greed, and politics during the Spanish Civil War.
Watching the Devil's Backbone through the guise of a haunted drama has drastically changed the film for me, and while there is a literal ghost at the center of the story all the characters appear to have something haunting them on an emotional or psychological level. The performances across the board are fantastic, it should be said that in many films involving children it is difficult to get effective drama from such a young cast, but one of Del Toro's consistent strength's has been to pull this off in his many feature film including this one. The rest of the cast are, of course, similarly strong and help offer strong dramatic weight to the characters and to the situation itself. The visual style from Del Toro is certainly a step up from the lower budgeted Cronos, with a much more elegant look, and better special FX.
Del Toro has gone on to create one other Spanish language film, Panís Labyrinth, which in the extra features he concludes in a companion piece to The Devilís Backbone. The latter film is less horror, and more of a trip into dark fantasy, and yet both films do indeed feel like the opposite sides of the same coin, and are effective when viewed together as companion pieces. Now, of course, would be a great time for those folks at the Criterion collection to secure the rights of Panís Labyrinth for a Blu-ray reissue of that film with a more naturalistic transfer that will bring it inline with what is present on the Criterion issued Devilís Backbone.
Criterion bring the Devil's Backbone to Blu-ray in an absolutely superb 1:85:1 1080p MPEG-4 encoded transfer preserving the films original theatrical aspect ratio. The film looks better than it ever has except for possibly during it's theatrical run, and it certainly looks better than the last DVD release in every possible way. The film has an natural organic look with color reproduction (mostly browns, and Earthy tones) being excellent, flesh tones being right on the mark, and black levels being inky, solid, and deep. There is in addition a nice, natural, organic grain structure present throughout the transfer which offers a more theatrical experience during the viewing. I did not notice any instances of print damage during my viewing.
The audio is Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The track is quite effective with dialogue coming throug nice and loud, as does the music and FX.
If you find yourself in need of any additional extras after sifting through Criterion's massive supplementary package then I would be quite surprised. The package put together could be considered the definitive supplementary package for the film. It kicks off with an Introduction to the film by Director Guillermo Del Toro, and a port of the 2004 Sony DVD Commentary. We then get a featurette called Summoning Spirits which goes into the design and creation of Santi, the ghost at the center of The Devil's Backbone. This is followed by an archival featurette called Que es un Fantasma? Which is a Behind the Scenes look at the film with members of the cast and crew. We have Del Toro's Thumbnails which shows us some of the preliminary images Del Toro designed for the Devil's Backbone. We then get 3 separate interviews with Del Toro, Spanish Gothic, Director's Notebook and Designing the Devil's Backbone which describe different facets of the film, it's creation, and design. There is also a short featurette with a historian called War of Values that discusses the political elements present in the film. The disc is rounded off by deleted scenes, storyboard to film comparisons, the films trailers, and a booklet of liner notes.
It's hard to pick a finest film from director Guillermo Del Toro who could very well be considered one of the great visual stylist working in film today. The Devil's Backbone, however, could easily be considered one of his greatest achievements. The A/V on the Blu-ray is spectacular, and the Extras are elaborate, informative, entertaining, and interesting. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.