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Film / The Devil's Backbone

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1939, Spain.

The Spanish Civil War enters its final stage. Casares and Carmen, both supporters of the Second Republic cause, operate a small orphanage in a remote part of Spain, along with the groundskeeper Jacinto and a teacher, Conchita. Casares and Carmen keep a large cache of gold to help support the treasury of the Republican loyalists, making this remote site a frequent target of Franco's troops; an unexploded bomb waits to be defused in the orphanage's courtyard.

When a small boy named Carlos arrives there, he believes that he is only staying until his father returns from the war. However, Carlos is about to learn that more than the living dwell here, as he starts seeing an apparition he cannot explain, and hears tales of a boy named Santi who disappeared the day the bomb showed up.

The Devil's Backbone (Spanish title: El espinazo del diablo) is a 2001 Mexican/Spanish Gothic Horror film written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. It stars Fernando Tielve, Íñigo Garcés, and Eduardo Noriega. del Toro has stated on the DVD that, along with Hellboy, this was his most personal project. Has a "sister film" in Pan's Labyrinth, and according to del Toro his Pinocchio works as a third installment.

In 2013, it was added to The Criterion Collection, and its spine number is 666!

The Devil's Backbone contains examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Jacinto got too rough and caused Santi's death, but tries to wake the dead boy up and has a few moments of panic after realising what he's done.
  • And Then John Was a Zombie: It's unclear whether or not this actually counts, since the ghost ultimately turned out not to be the villain, but still...
  • And This Is for...: Before Jaime pushes Jacinto into the pool, he says "For Santi."
  • Big Bad: Jacinto, especially when it's revealed he killed Santi and was solely planning on killing the orphans and burning the orphanage down.
  • Black Eyes of Crazy: Subverted. While local Creepy Child Santi has eyes with black sclerae and pale bluish irises and haunts the orphanage, he's not particularly Ax-Crazy, as he only wants to avenge his death at the hands of Jacinto, who, as the real villain of the story, wants to make off with the orphanage's hidden cache of gold, the orphans be damned.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: In a sense: the orphanage barely manages to hold on, but the deconstruction here is that the orphan workers (especially Casares) are good people (aside from Jacinto) with their own flaws and the like.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with the dead Casares musing on the nature of ghosts.
  • The Bully: Jaime bullies Carlos throughout the first half of the film.
  • Chekhov's Lecture: Who knew that learning how prehistoric hunters took down larger prey would come in handy later?
  • Children Are Innocent: Deconstructed. While the orphans like most of the things children like, they are a complex bunch, and ultimately prove quite capable of taking down Jacinto.
  • Creepy Child: Santi has eerily pale skin and dark eyes and, as an Undead Child, generally spends his time stalking the orphanage grounds giving everyone the heebie-jeebies.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Santi, who's more or less a creepy ghost...but at the same time, he doesn't seek to harm anybody (except Jacinto) and only wishes to avenge his murder.
  • Death by Materialism: Due to having so much weight on him from the gold he carried on his waist in a tight knot, Jacinto is unable to swim to the surface before Santi gets to him.
  • Death by Irony: Doubling as Death by Materialism. After being thrown into the pool beneath the orphanage, Jacinto is weighted down by the bars of gold in his pockets — the treasure he's spent years searching for - long enough for Santi to finish the job.
  • Death of a Child: Santi, who was murdered by Jacinto in order to keep his search for the gold a secret.
  • Defiant to the End: After running into him in the desert, Conchita refuses to apologize to Jacinto and lets him kill her instead.
  • Dies Wide Open: Casares dies to the wounds he suffered during the explosion, while guarding the orphanage.
  • Dirty Coward: Jacinto,who practically slinks out of the orphanage with his tail between his legs after one solid blow from Carmen's cane. Instead he sneaks back in and starts a fire that kills every adult at the orphanage except Conchita.
  • Downer Ending: The teachers and a number of boys are dead, and the remaining boys have no choice but to venture out into the desert for help — where they'll most likely die as well, forgotten by all. More sad when Jaime and Carlos are both seen in Pan's Labyrinth...where they both die. del Toro confirmed it is them at that. And given Casares' musings on the nature of ghosts, he and Santi are likely trapped in the abandoned and ruined orphanage forever as spirits.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Despite initially being hostile to one another, Carlos and Jaime become this as the film goes along.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Near the beginning, the headmistress shows the children a picture of a bunch of Ice age hunters killing a mammoth with spears, and comments that, back in the day, people had to cooperate and work in groups in order to survive. Later, the kids manage to overpower physically superior Jacinto by outnumbering him and attacking him with improvised spears.
    • When the characters are preparing to leave the orphanage, Carmen remarks that her artificial leg feels heavier than usual. It's because she hid the gold inside it.
    • Jacinto's intense outbursts, harsh, serious disposition, and rough treatment of the boys.
  • Genre Savvy: Unlike characters in most Hollywood ghost stories, it actually occurs to Carlos to simply ask the ghost what it is he wants. He wants revenge on Jacinto.
  • Ghostly Goals: Santi just wants his murder uncovered and avenged.
  • Hard Head: Averted. Santi's deadly head injury is the result of Jacinto throwing him into a pillar while intimidating him.
  • He Knows Too Much: The reason Jacinto (accidentally) killed Santi - he didn't want anyone to know he was looking for the gold and was trying to intimidate him into staying quiet.
  • Hero Killer: Other than Casares' contact who is caught and killed by the Francoists halfway through the film, every character who dies in the movie is killed by Jacinto. Including Jacinto.
  • Hot for Student: Jacinto has been having an affair with his principal since he was barely a teenager.
  • Ironic Echo: Casare tells the children near the end that he'll keep watch and never leave this place. Then he dies and becomes a ghost, forever haunting the orphanage.
  • Jar of the Bizarre: Dr. Casares has a collection of "pickled punks": stillborn infants preserved in jars. Owing to prenatal malnutrition, they all possess the titular deformity — an oddly prominent spine bursting through an underdeveloped torso. The doctor is able to make a bit of supplementary income selling the brine from the jars to superstitious locals, who believe it is a cure for impotence.
  • Kick the Dog: Jacinto dropping a lit cigarette butt on the ground is treated as an Establishing Character Moment.
  • Looks Like Cesare: Santi has dark hair, black eyes with extra black eyeliner, and very pale, almost porcelain-like skin (indeed, his head injury looks like more like cracked ceramic than anything organic, which makes him look like a Creepy Doll too.) His appearance reflects how, unlike the other kids of the orphanage, this one is dead.
  • Meaningful Name: Jacinto is the Spanish form of Hyacinth. In Greek mythology, Hyacinth was a youth loved by the god Apollo. This reflects Jacinto's relationship with Principal Carmen.
  • My Greatest Failure: Jaime saw Jacinto kill Santi and throw him into the pool, but didn't do anything because he was too afraid of Jacinto and can't swim.
  • Never Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight: A variation. Despite being armed with a double-barreled shotgun, Jacinto is defeated by a bunch of kids wielding handmade spears forged from long sticks.
  • Number of the Beast: A meta example: When this film was released by The Criterion Collection, it was Spine #666.
  • Once More, with Clarity: The scenes from the beginning with Jaime discovering the dying Santi and Santi being dropped into the pool are shown in more detail, revealing what had actually happened.
  • Orphanage of Fear: Not intentionally, at least. Mostly it's due to the haunting.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Santi is caught in an existential loop until he can avenge his death.
    • According to Word of God on the (American release) DVD commentary, he is still in an existential loop after the end of the film. Also, the opening narration poses the question, what is a ghost? and one of the following lines suggests an insect trapped in amber. So presumably, all ghosts exist in that way.
  • People Jars: Pickled fetuses with the titular deformitynote .
  • Precocious Crush: Jaime has a wholesome crush on Conchita. However, there is a less-than-wholesome example as well: Jacinto had a less-than-wholesome crush on his own teacher, Carmen, when he was a student.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Jacinto, a fact the film emphasizes by dressing him identically to the orphan boys.
  • Red Right Hand: Red right eye, in this case. Jacinto's right eye remains noticeably swollen and bloodshot for the rest of the movie after Carmen smashes him across the face with her cane.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The unexploded fascist bomb sits in the center of the courtyard. The orphanage is run by socialists, and their contact with the rebels is caught by the fascists halfway through the film. The bomb also fell the same night Santi was murdered, both of them things trapped in stasis, stuck in a moment of violence and terror forever.
  • Saving the Orphanage: A-fucking-verted. By the end of the movie, everyone in the orphanage aside from the four kids are dead and the orphanage is left in ruins.
  • Schoolyard Bully All Grown Up: Jacinto, who works as a janitor around the orphanage and behaves like a bully despite being a fully grown adult.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: After the gold turns out to not be in the safe, Jacinto's partners grow increasingly fed up, and take off without him the next day — just as he finds out that Carmen had stashed the gold in her prosthetic leg.
  • Smug Snake: Jacinto is really only a threat in that he is an adult, and those he oppresses and bullies are children. The moment he ends up in conflict with another adult, he immediately ends up defeated and thoroughly humiliated. And in the end, he is even defeated by the children, because he fails to recognize that they have come to hate him more than they fear him.
  • Tragic Monster: Santi.
  • Undead Child: Santi is the ghost of a child who, as it turns out, was murdered by Jacinto after he and Jaime found Jacinto trying to locate the orphanage's secret gold cache. He Looks Like Cesare, while also sporting an Undeathly Pallor, and he has some pretty nasty head injuries, reflecting how he died.
  • Undeath Always Ends: Averted. This is one of the film's great tragedies.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Jacinto, who murdered Santi to cover up his search for the hidden gold, and has no problem with threatening the other orphans, too.
  • Zerg Rush: Despite being physically stronger and having a gun, Jacinto is still just one guy while the kids have numbers on their side. As a result, he’s blindsided and easily stabbed before being thrown in the pool.