Years before his Oscar-winning PAN'S LABYRINTH, Guillermo del Toro struck international success with his smaller but equally impressive THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. Del Toro's third entry offers all of the same dark fantasy elements present in the later film without being as overstated. In the midst of a war-torn Spain, a small orphanage serves as the last refuge for a group of students and their rebel teachers. The young newcomer, Carlos, begins receiving ominous prophecies from the spirit of another boy who had gone missing. The being warns him that many of the students will soon be killed, but will their fate come at the hands of the war or the internal greed and strife found within their isolated retreat? Del Toro demonstrates more of his amazing visual style, combining rich color filters and backgrounds with fluid camera movements. The scares are all soft and subtle, with the true horror lying in the hearts of men rather than the supernatural (a common theme in each of his films). It is the evils of war, greed, disloyalty, and despair that are the most frightening. There are numerous ever-present dangers throughout the script that also lock the audience into a state of perpetual suspense: in addition to the whispered rumors of Santi, the "one who sighs", the fear of discovery as two of the characters engage in a secret affair is never out of mind, and a de-activated bomb that was dropped in the center of the courtyard serves as a constant reminder of the encroaching war. The significance of the title lies in superstitious beliefs and false hopes, themes that also engulf every aspect of the film. As Dr. Casares tells Carlos after Carlos approaches him about the ghost, to believe in ghosts is to believe in silly superstition; however, we soon find out that Dr. Casares, a man of science, places just as much faith in 'silly superstitions' by taking a magic elixir to try to cure his impotence. The roles of these superstitions are absolutely integral to the plot. Carlos must believe in the ghost of Santi in order to find the strength within himself to defeat the film's villain, just as Dr. Casares must drink the elixir in order to find the strength to continue on despite the impossible odds. The multi-layered themes and superior storytelling are only further accentuated by the outstanding performances found in a winning cast. THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE rivals Guillermo del Toro's masterful work in PAN's LABYRINTH, and is considered by many to be his defining work. It is an immediate Horror classic, and a must see for every fan.
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