It is the Spanish Civil War. Casares and Carmen 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 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 supposedly one day will have a third installment called 36/63, if Del Toro ever gets around to it.
The Devil's Backbone contains examples of:
- 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."
- Bittersweet Ending: Both Carlos and Jaime have cameos in the film Pan's Labyrinth as guerrilla soldiers, revealing that they survived this film. Unfortunately, they don't survive that one.
- Black Eyes of Crazy/Creepy Child/Looks Like Cesare/Undead Child: Santi.
- Boarding School of Horrors
- Book-Ends: The film begins and ends with the dead Casares' musing on the nature of ghosts.
- The Bully: Jaime is a mild example.
- 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.
- Dark Is Not Evil: Santi.
- 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: Cesare.
- Downer Ending: The teachers are dead, and the children 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 Jaimee and Carlos are both seen in Pan's Labyrinth... where they both die. Del Toro confirmed it is them at that.
- 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 is because she hid the gold in it.
- 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.
- Hard Head: Averted. Santi's injury is the result of Jacinto throwing him into a pillar while intimidating him.
- He Knows Too Much: The reason Jacinto killed Santi - he didn't want anyone to know he was looking for the gold.
- Hot for Student: The primary villain has been having an affair with his principal since he was barely a teenager.
- I'm Cold... So Cold...: Principal Carmen.
- Ironic Echo: Casares 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Reality Ensues:
- 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, hes blindsided and easily stabbed before being thrown in the pool.
- 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.
- Saving the Orphanage
- 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.
- Spanish Civil War
- 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.