Guillermo del Toro
Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve, Íñigo Garcés, Irene Visedo, José Manuel Lorenzo
Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, David Muñoz
What is a ghost?
From the director of Hellboy! Packed with added features, this ghost story centers on a middle-aged couple in 1939 Spain who run an isolated orphanage in Santa Lucia, which also doubles as a hiding place for Republican funds. When an unexploded bomb dropped by the Facists sits untouched in the courtyard, they suspect the schoolhouse is haunted.
$34.963 thousand on 4 screens.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Spanish DTS-HHD MA 5.1
Runtime: 108 min.
Release Date: 7/30/2013
• Audio Commentary with Director Guillermo del Toro
• Introduction from Director Guillermo del Toro
• Director’s Thumbnail Track
• “Que Es Un Fantasma” Documentary
• Deleted Scenes with Optional Director’s Commentary
• “Summoning Spirits”
• “Spanish Gothic”
• “Designing The Devil’s Backbone”
• “Director’s Notebook”
• “Sketch, Storyboard, Screen”
• “A War of Values” Featurette
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Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.
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The Devil's Backbone: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (2001)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 2, 2013)
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, Blade II 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 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. Honestly, I feel reluctant to even think of it as a ghost story. Yeah, there 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 Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B+/ Bonus B+
The Devil’s Backbone appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The 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.
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. Blacks came across as deep and firm, while shadows were clear and appropriately opaque. 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 Blu-ray compare to the 2004 Special Edition DVD? Audio seemed a bit broader and richer, while visuals offered superior smoothness and delineation. I thought the DVD was good for its format but it didn’t match up with the Blu-ray.
The Criterion Blu-ray mixes new materials with some from prior releases. Created for the 2004 DVD, we open with an audio commentary from director Guillermo del Toro, who 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 apparently 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.
New to the Criterion set, we find a 48-second introduction from del Toro. He basically sets up what we’ll find on the disc, so it’s a superfluous piece.
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 it’s still a fun addition.
Next we find a documentary called Que Es Un Fantasma. In this 27-minute and 18-second program, we get interviews with del Toro, co-writer Antonio Trashorras, art director Cesar Macarron, unit production manager Esther Garcia, director of photography Guillermo Navarro, 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 and 36 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.
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.
Yet another del Toro interview appears under the banner of Spanish Gothic. During the 17-minute, 54-second show, the director covers the original Backbone screenplay and changes made to it, influences, reflections of the Spanish gothic genre and connections to his other work. Del Toro gives a pretty introspective look at the topic and delivers an engaging chat as usual.
Billed as an “interactive gallery”, the Director’s Notebook lets us explore a variety of elements. This leads us through a literal look at the notebook del Toro created for various characters/concepts, but it also branches off to “video pods” at times. We find four of these clips, as they offer more notes from del Toro about design issues and influences. Once again, he provides solid information.
Designing The Devil’s Backbone goes for 11 minutes, 57 seconds and features del Toro. He discusses what the title implies: various visual design elements in the film. Once again, del Toro digs into the material with gusto and gives us a fine take on the topics.
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, two seconds of footage. The presentation is good, as this feature gives us a nice look at the planning process for the film.
Another new featurette, A War of Values lasts 14 minutes, seven seconds and offers info from historian/author Sebastiaan Faber as he chats about the Spanish Civil War and its reflection in Backbone. He manages to place the film in perspective during this informative piece.
In addition to the film’s trailer, we get a 10-page booklet. It includes credits and an essay from critic Mark Kermode. While not one of Criterion’s best booklets, it still adds value to the set.
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, it pays off effectively. The Blu-ray delivers very good picture and audio along with a strong collection of bonus materials. This turns into a strong release for an involving film.
To rate this film, visit the Special Edition review of THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE