DVD Movie Guide @ dvdmg.com
Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main


Guillermo del Toro
Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Federico Luppi, Fernando Tielve, Íñigo Garcés, Irene Visedo, José Manuel Lorenzo
Writing Credits:
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.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$34.963 thousand on 4 screens.
Domestic Gross
$754.749 thousand.

Rated R

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 108 min.
Price: $19.94
Release Date: 7/27/2004

• Audio Commentary with Director Guillermo del Toro
• Director’s Thumbnail Track
• “Que Es Un Fantasma” Documentary
• Deleted Scenes with Optional Director’s Commentary
• Thumbnail/Storyboard Comparisons
• Galleries
• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


[an error occurred while processing this directive]

The Devil's Backbone: Special Edition (2001)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 16, 2004)

When a director scores a hit, it seems inevitable that studios will push out related product as a tie-in. Thus, even though Guillermo del Toro’s 2001 flick The Devil’s Backbone already appeared on DVD in 2002, the release of his Hellboy meant Columbia-Tristar figured a new version was in order.

Since Backbone slipped under my radar the first time, that was fine with me. 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 duel storylines. We see Carlos’ continuing involvement with the ghost and his investigation of Santi’s death. 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 Hellboy, Blade II and Mimic, I didn’t know quite what to expect from del Toro with Backbone. I knew it wouldn’t be the same form of movie, but I thought it would be more fantasy driven than it is. The 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. 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 DVD Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B+/ Bonus B+

The Devil’s Backbone appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Not many problems arose in this terrific transfer.

Across the board, sharpness seemed excellent. The movie displayed virtually no instances of softness at any time. Instead, it remained crisp and detailed. Jagged edges and shimmering created no concerns, and I saw no issues with edge enhancement. As for print flaws, a couple of specks popped up, but that was it, as the movie almost 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 excellent at all times.

While not quite as good as the visuals, the Dolby Digital 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. When the subwoofer kicked into gear, it presented tight low-end material without any distortion or boominess. Ultimately, the audio of Backbone worked well.

For this special edition DVD, we get a mix of supplements. Some of these repeat from the prior DVD, while some are new. I’ll designate features unique to this release with an asterisk, and at the end of the review, I’ll summarize what elements showed up on the old one but not here.

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 earlier 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.

An unusual feature, the *director’s thumbnail track 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 you’ll probably have to check out the thumbnails on their own, but they’re still a fun addition.

Next we find a documentary called *Que Es Un Fantasma. In this 27-minute and 17-second program, we find behind the scenes materials, movie snippets, and 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 32 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.

For more art, we go to the Thumbnail/Storyboard Comparisons. 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 segments run between 62 seconds and three minutes, 29 seconds for a total of 11 minutes, 53 seconds of footage. The presentation is good, as this feature gives us a nice look at the planning process for the film.

Additional material of this sort shows up in the *Galleries. These provide stillframe looks at “Characters” (19 screens), “Art Direction/Set Design” (26), “Prosthetic Effects” (15), “Thumbnails” (6), and “del Toro’s Director’s Notebook” (3). Some interesting images show up here, and in a user-friendly format; all of them come via thumbnails, so we can jump to desired pictures without cycling through the whole lot.

Lastly, in the *Previews domain, we find some ads. This area includes trailers for Backbone, Hellboy and Darkness Falls.

Those asterisks noted what comes over from the old DVD and what new material pops up here. What do we lose from the prior release? The main omission is an audio commentary with del Toro and director of photography Guillermo Navarro. We also fail to get a short “making of” featurette and a few ads for other flicks that differ from those found in this set’s “Previews”.

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 DVD offers excellent picture quality along with very strong audio and a nice collection of supplements.

I definitely recommend Backbone, and for those who don’t own the prior DVD, the 2004 special edition is the one to get. It includes a more substantial roster of extras and retails for $10 less. Whether or not it merits an “upgrade” from fans who already have the original remains to be seen. The new release touts a “brand-new director-supervised HD film transfer”, though I fail to understand why a three-year-old movie needs a new transfer.

If we remove the transfer from the equation, the issue comes down to supplements. This new set includes many more than those on the old one, and they’re consistently high quality. If these interest you, the 2004 edition merits an “upgrade”, especially if the prior one’s transfer disappointed you in some way; the more recent disc offers very strong visuals. I do think it’s too bad that Columbia didn’t present the smattering of extras exclusive to the old DVD here, as their inclusion would make this a truly excellent set.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4 Stars Number of Votes: 22
4 3:
View Averages for all rated titles.