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Guillermo del Toro
Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi
Writing Credits:
Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz

After adolescent Carlos arrives at an ominous boys' orphanage, he discovers the school is haunted and has many dark secrets which he must uncover.

Rated R.

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Dolby Vision
Spanish DTS-HD MA 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 108 min.
Price: $299.99
Release Date: 11/22/2022
Available Only As Part of 11-Film “Sony Pictures Classics 30th Anniversary” Set

• Audio Commentary with Director Guillermo del Toro
• Audio Commentary with Director Guillermo del Toro and Guillermo Navarro
• EPK Featurette
• Director’s Thumbnail Track
• “Que Es Un Fantasma?” Featurette
• Deleted Scenes with Optional Director’s Commentary
• “Summoning Spirits” Featurette
• “Sketch, Storyboard, Screen” Featurette
• Trailer


-LG OLED65C6P 65-Inch 4K Ultra HD Smart OLED TV
-Marantz SR7010 9.2 Channel Full 4K Ultra HD AV Surround Receiver
-Sony UBP-X700 4K Ultra HD Dolby Vision Blu-ray Player
-Chane A2.4 Speakers
-SVS SB12-NSD 12" 400-watt Sealed Box Subwoofer


The Devil's Backbone [4K UHD] (2001)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 28, 2022)

Director Guillermo del Toro made his US debut with 1997’s Mimic, a box office disappointment. He’d get another shot at success in the States, of course, but before he tried again with 2002’s Blade II, del Toro went with a much smaller-scale effort via 2001’s Spanish-language The Devil’s Backbone.

Set at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War, Backbone introduces us to a youngster named Carlos (Fernando Tielve). An orphan whose Republican father died in the war, he gets left at the Santa Lucia School, where he meets and befriends fellow students Owl (Javier Gonzalez) and Galvez (Adrian Lamana) as well as a bully named Jaime (Íñigo Garcés).

The cast of characters also includes school principal Carmen (Marisa Paredes), teacher Alma (Berta Ojea) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi). A former student named Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) works as a caretaker along with his fiancée Conchita (Irene Visedo).

Odd things happen immediately, as Carlos thinks he sees the ghost of a young boy. He later learns about Santi (Junio Valverde), another student who died under suspicious circumstances. Carlos believes that the ghost he sees is Santi, and he encounters the apparition additional times.

Essentially Backbone follows dual storylines. We see Carlos’ continuing involvement with the ghost and his investigation of Santi’s death and we also follow the problems that befall the school.

We get a feel for the interrelations of the various adult characters and their fears that the conquest of Spain by the fascists will mean problems for their charges and themselves given their Republican orientation. The two tales coalesce when Jacinto enacts a plot to further his own desires and we find out what happened to Santi.

Given a résumé with action-oriented flicks like Blade II, Hellboy and Mimic, I didn’t know quite what to expect from del Toro with Backbone when I first watched it in 2004. I knew it wouldn’t be the same form of movie, but I thought it would be more fantasy driven than it is.

The 2004 DVD’s packaging encouraged this notion, especially as it promoted the movie as a ghost story in the same vein as The Others and The Sixth Sense.

Anyone who expects More Others or The Seventh Sense will likely depart a screening of Backbone disappointed. While it obviously offers more than a few ghost story elements, these don’t predominate. Actually, if anything, I’d say that Backbone feels like The Sixth Sense melded with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though that combination mostly kicks in during the movie’s second half. I don’t want to give away too much, but the Jacinto side of things really starts to go down that path as the film progresses.

Frankly, not a lot happens during the first half of Backbone, but del Toro uses the time effectively nonetheless. He uses the early segments to build a certain mood that helps make the experience evocative and engrossing.

The director also builds the characters well. Del Toro doesn’t spell everything out for the viewer, and often what he leaves unsaid seems as telling as what he lets us know. He allows us to fill in the gaps ourselves, which oddly makes the characters more full-blooded.

Del Toro doesn’t shoot for simplistic characters, and he throws us occasional curveballs. Jacinto is one of the primary ones. When we first meet him, he seems like a standard issue heroic sort. With his handsome appearance and charisma, we initial think he’ll be the hero who’ll save and lead away his lovely lady to a better life.

However, the movie slowly demonstrates his darker side and subverts the common concepts of leading men. The story also develops the other characters in various ways that seem more natural and less constricted than usual.

Backbone certainly uses an unusual backdrop for this sort of tale. I think it’s cool that del Toro features the Spanish Civil War, especially since that event gets so little attention in this part of the world.

That’s not a surprise, since the conflict in Europe had a much greater impact on American lives, but it’s still very intriguing to find a slice of that story, and it makes for a creative environment in which to cast the tale.

Del Toro displays admirable restraint when it comes to the horror elements of Backbone. He almost never goes for the usual ghost-around-the-corner cheap scares, as he makes the movie a more consistently ominous place. is a ghost, and he plays a very significant role in the proceedings. However, so much of the movie concentrates on other dramatic elements that the supernatural parts take a backseat - a pivotal one, but a backseat nonetheless.

This means that viewers may want to watch The Devil’s Backbone a second time so they can see it from outside of their preconceptions. When I went into it, I expected something more overtly horror-related, but I didn’t get it. I adapted to that and enjoyed the movie, but I think it’s a rich tale that would benefit from a screening during which it can better be taken on its own merits.

The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B+/ Bonus B+

The Devil’s Backbone appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this 4K UHD Disc. The Dolby Vision transfer delivered appealing visuals.

For the most part, the film displayed solid definition. I thought occasional wide shots or interiors looked a little tentative, but those remained infrequent, so the majority of the flick appeared accurate and concise.

Jagged edges and shimmering created no concerns, and I saw no issues with edge enhancement. As for print flaws, the movie lacked them and always came across as clean and fresh. A distinct layer of grain implied no use of intrusive noise reduction techniques.

Not exactly chock full of color, two tones dominated Backbone. We got a mix of fairly amber daylight shots as well as cold, bluish evening images.

Occasional examples of other hues popped up, but those tints played the most significant role. The colors always looked well-defined and full, with extra punch that stemmed from the disc’s HDR.

Blacks came across as deep and firm, while shadows were clear and appropriately opaque. HDR added range and impact to whites and contrast as well. The image remained solid at all times.

In addition, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of The Devil’s Backbone also was satisfying. Much of the film presented a modest scope, but the soundfield opened up the environment well. The music demonstrated good spaciousness, while effects proved to be accurately placed and neatly blended.

The movie went mostly for a feeling of general creepy ambience, but when necessary, the elements played an important role. Santi’s feet skittered effectively around the room, and a few other sequences used the surrounds nicely as well. The overall impression seemed engrossing and convincing.

No problems with audio quality manifested themselves. Dialogue remained natural and distinctive, with no signs of edginess or intelligibility issues on display. Music was subdued - as it should be - and the score sounded full and warm, with good dynamics.

Effects also mainly played a background role, where they showed nice clarity and accuracy. Bass response was deep and firm, so when the subwoofer kicked into gear, it presented tight low-end material without any distortion or boominess. Ultimately, the audio of Backbone worked well.

How did the 4K UHD compare to the 2013 Criterion Blu-ray? Both came with identical audio.

The 4K’s Dolby Vision image kicked up the quality of an already-strong Criterion BD. The 4K looked sharper and boasted superior colors and blacks. That helped make it a nice step up in quality.

The 4K provides two separate audio commentaries, the first of which comes from a 2004 track with director Guillermo del Toro. He provides a running, screen-specific discussion - or “ramble”, as he calls it.

Del Toro sells himself short, for although his “ramble” infrequently deals directly with the movie’s on-screen action, he goes into many interesting topics. Much of the emphasis focuses on the gothic romance genre, as del Toro chats about the history of that form of art and literature as well as other issues related to it. He also talks about various personal and profession influences, character nuances, and symbolism.

Del Toro doesn’t tell us much about the actual making of the movie. The film’s original 2002 DVD included a different commentary that delved into that subject, so he didn’t want to repeat himself.

In any case, the “ramble” on this disc offers a deep and rich look at the film and del Toro’s feelings on the subject; it’s a strong commentary.

Speaking of that 2002 commentary, it appears here for the first time since that original DVD. We get del Toro and director of photography Guillermo Navarro as they deliver a running, screen-specific look at imagery and themes, influences and inspirations, editing and the director/editor collaboration, sets and locations, various effects, story/characters, cast and performances, sound and visual design, photography, and related topics.

At the start, del Toro warns us that this offers his "maiden voyage into DVD commentary", with the implication that we shouldn't expect much from the chat. On the contrary, the opposite proves true.

Del Toro has long offered terrific discussions of his films, and as shown here, he started off with a bang. Of course, Navarro helps, and this turns into a thoroughly engaging and informative track that shows no issues related to del Toro's "rookie" status.

An unusual feature, the del Toro’s Thumbnails uses the subtitle stream to show drawings. The thumbnails offer del Toro’s crude storyboards, and they appear throughout the movie to correspond to the action.

This is a cool way to display them, with one notable drawback: since the art utilizes the subtitle domain, we get no English translation as we watch. That means non-Spanish speakers won’t be able to follow the story with this activated, but they’re still a fun addition.

For more art, we go to the Sketch, Storyboard, Screen domain. These let us contrast the crude drawings and more finished work for six scenes along with the final film.

The thumbnails show up in the upper left with the storyboards in the upper right and the movie in the lower half of the screen. The six segments run a total of 12 minutes, seven seconds of footage. The presentation is good, as this feature gives us a nice look at the planning process for the film.

Next we find a documentary called Que Es Un Fantasma. In this 27-minute, 18-second program, we get interviews with del Toro, Navarro, co-writer Antonio Trashorras, art director Cesar Macarron, unit production manager Esther Garcia, makeup effects designers David Marti and Montse Ribe, and actors Eduardo Noriega, Fernando Tielve, Inigo Garces, Irene Visedo, Marisa Paredes and Federico Luppi.

They discuss the origins of the film, its unusual setting, its themes, locations, sets and cinematography, effects, directing children, character elements, and del Toro’s approach to directing. It features an episodic nature that makes the presentation a bit choppy, but a lot of solid information appears. “Fantasma” goes through many useful topics efficiently and provides a quality examination of the movie’s creation.

After this we get a set of four Deleted Scenes. Taken together, these fill three minutes, 41 seconds.

As one might infer from their brevity, not much happens in these clips, as three of the four offer minor bits of character expansion; the fourth just shows a little more of the boys as they work against their foe.

We can watch the scenes with or without commentary from del Toro. He concisely tells us why the segments got the boot.

Previously exclusive to the Criterion release, Summoning Spirits runs 13 minutes, 47 seconds and provides another interview with del Toro. He chats about the design and execution of the Santi character as well as the use of colors in the film and other visual issues. Del Toro provides another involving, informative discussion here.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we finish with an Original EPK Featurette. It goes for 12 minutes, 56 seconds and involves del Toro, Trashorras, Noriega, Tielve, Navarro, Garces, Parades, Luppi, and Visedo.

“EPK” examines story/characters, cast and performances, del Toro’s approach to the shoot, and general thoughts. As far as promo reels go, “EPK” seems above average, but it reveals little that we don’t hear elsewhere.

Note that outside of “Spirits”, the 4K lacks materials exclusive to the Criterion release. Other than some photo galleries, though, it combines everything from the 2002 and 2004 DVDs.

An unusual take on the ghost story genre, The Devil’s Backbone proves consistently satisfying. It moves at its own pace and may test the patience of some, but it one gives it a shot and allows oneself to become immersed in the setting, it pays off effectively. The 4K UHD delivers very good picture and audio along with an appealing collection of bonus materials. This turns into a strong release for an involving film.

Note that as of November 2022, this 4K UHD disc of Devil’s Backbone appears solely via an 11-film “Sony Picture Classics 30th Anniversary” box. It also includes Orlando, Celluloid Closet, City of Lost Children, Run Lola Run, SLC Punk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Volver, Synecdoche, New York, Still Alice and Call Me By Your Name.

To rate this film, visit the DVD review of THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main