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The devil's backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

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Movie propaganda

"What is a ghost? An emotion, a terrible moment condemned to repeat itself over and over? An instant of pain perhaps? Something dead which appears at times alive. a sentiment suspended in time... like a blurry photograph... like an insect trapped in amber."

These words, spoken by aged Professor Cásares (Federico Luppi), begin the mournful fable of the Santa Lucia School during the last days of the Spanish civil war. An imposing stone building set on a desolate plateau, the school shelters the orphans of the republican militia and politicians, and other abandoned children.

Upon his arrival at Santa Lucia, 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), is confronted with the hostility of Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), the oldest of the children and clearly the leader of the malnourished troupe of orphans. Besides Cásares, the adult personnel of the school includes Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the steely headmistress, widow of a leftist poet; Alma (Berta Ojea), another teacher; Conchita (Irene Visedo), the cook; and the young caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Aggressive and greedy, Jacinto is filled with hatred for the school that houses him and the teachers that raised him.

Gradually, Carlos uncovers the dark ties that bind the inhabitants of the school, including the secret that haunts them - Santi (Junio Valverde), a student who was brutally murdered, and whose pale ghost now wanders the grounds. Who killed Santi on the night when a bomb from one of the planes in the conflict fell in the centre of the courtyard, miraculously without exploding?

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The devil's backbone image

Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film supernatural horror ghost murder Spain Spanish

Persons of interest

  • Fernando Tielve .... Carlos
  • Íñigo Garcés .... Jaime
  • Federico Luppi .... Professor Cásares
  • Marisa Paredes .... Carmen
  • Junio Valverde .... Santi
  • Berta Ojea .... Alma
  • Irene Visedo .... Conchita
  • Eduardo Noriega .... Jacinto
  • Francisco Maestre .... El Puerco
  • José Manuel Lorenzo .... Marcelo
  • Antonio Trashorras .... Screenwriter
  • David Muñoz .... Screenwriter
  • Guillermo del Toro .... Screenwriter
  • Guillermo del Toro .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Secret Agent Acid Thunder

Theatrical report

Well kids, it seems as though the email is gonna be copping it in the form of reviews. No more chicken scratchings for your editor to decipher! Now, I know that that adds a bit of flavour, but times are tough. I got a real job. I have to take these sorts of things seriously.

Anyway, the movie was good. Not great, as I was expecting, but good. The ending was a bit lame for a Spanish director; I only say this because Spaniards are some of the most creative European film people in the business. They use everything at their disposal, because they are not about glitz and glamour, they are about blood and passion. They try to get the message across, without the distractions of "visual effects". This time, I was a little disappointed. Sigh, it was so weak. Vengeance is made, but at the cost of... well, never mind that.

The description of the film was misleading. By all accounts I was expecting to nod-off, but I didn't, which is a good thing. Not too much drama. And Euros are dark. They are passionate. They push every emotion to the max. They rest for no-one, and they are as real in times of war as anyone. Poor kids.

Security censorship classification

MA 15+ (Medium level violence)

Surveillance time

107 minutes (1:47 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 16 May 2002 - Sydney
Film: 26 May 2002 - Melbourne
DVD rental: 4 December 2002
VHS rental: 4 December 2002

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A conversation with Guillermo del Toro

While there are many directors with a serious interest in the history of cinema, like Scorsese or Bertrand Tavernier, it's rare to find a filmmaker like yourself who combines that with a fascination with horror movies.

I was a film fan first, in love with all of cinema, even though I only wanted to make film noir and horror films. Some of my early short films were more like crime movies than horror. But when I was about to direct Cronos, I saw Tarantino's Reservoir dogs and I thought that he was doing what I was dreaming of doing with film noir, and to be honest, with much more ability and panache. So I said, "That's it - I'm not doing it. There's no need for me to do it."

On the other hand, I still believe that some of the images in movies I have made are unique in the sense that I don't see anyone doing that kind of stuff. So I try to stay and be faithful to horror only. Of all the genres in cinema, horror is the one that is the most liberating in the sense that it allows you to use images and situations that are completely fantastic and not of reality. At it's best, it can transcend reality and become like a fairy tale image generator; at its worst, it's fun to do.

Who are your favourite directors in the genre?

The fantasists that I adore are Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg, James Whale, FW Murnau. Terence Fisher, from Hammer films. George Romero - I think his Dead movies are very vital political satires of America, almost Swiftian in how intelligent and savage they are. Another of my favourites is Mario Bava. A master. Also, Georges Franju, Jean Cocteau, Luis Bunuel, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Pedro Almodóvar.


Yeah. I think that Pedro has a proclivity towards the fantastic, but it's rarely seen in his movies. You can see it in Tie me up! Tie me down! Where he shows the director shooting a B-horror, semi-porn movie. And I think that most of his most outlandish characters are almost science fiction, as in the costuming of Kika. I worked with him on The devil's backbone as a producer, and when Pedro and I were doing the movie we would talk for entire afternoons about Mario Bava and how great he was.

Tell me about the genesis of this story. I understand that it's inspired by your own life.

When I was eleven, I saw a ghost. I didn't actually see it, I heard it like in the movie. I was in bed in the room that had once belonged to my late uncle Guillermo, whom I was named after, he and I were very good friends. He took me to some really strange movies and he always helped me cultivate a taste for the fantastic, in literature and cinema. And one day he said to me, "When I die I would love to come back and let you know if there's anything beyond". When he died, I inherited his room in my parent's house. I was doing my homework and I started hearing a really sad human voice sighing about a foot away from my face. And when I moved, the voice moved with me. And I went for about fifteen minutes through every logical explanation that it could have and it had none. I got the hell out of there and never went back to that room.

But not only that, every episode of child violence in the movie I saw perpetrated or was a victim of. This is when I was attending an all-male Jesuit school, which is very close to a prison experience in a strange way. I saw a child stabbed with a compass in the belly. I saw a very young kid lose some of his front teeth while being smashed on the corner of a column by other kids. And the scariest thing for the kid was that even if this was reported the other kids would say "We were just playing" and nothing would be done about it. It was very, very scary. So the movie is very personal for me in that sense.

Why did you set the story against the backdrop of the Spanish civil war?

When I did Cronos, I tried to do a vampire movie that had hints of what vampirism or eternal life means for different people. You have the industrialist in the movie who never leaves his room, yet wants to live forever. Then you have Federico Luppi's wife, who is worried about dying or aging. And then you have the character of the little girl who doesn't give a damn about eternity and is therefore truly immortal. And what I wanted to do with The devil's backbone is talk about what a ghost is from different points of view. And for me, a ghost is something pending, something incomplete, something left undone that haunts me.

So all the characters in the movie have something that they have lost. And all of them, by the end of the movie, except for one, reach closure, in one way or another. You have Jacinto, who has lost a childhood that he thoroughly hates and it haunts him. You have Cásares who is haunted by a love that he never was able to declare. You have the war, which is the biggest ghost generator in humanity because it destroys past, annuls future, and destroys life. All those children are essentially left without a childhood. And on top of everything, you have the literal ghost floating in the hallway. A terrible event doomed to repeat itself over and over again.

The Spanish Civil War, I believe, is one of those wars that never ended. It just kind of wound down very slowly and it still to this day haunts the Spanish people. I don't think it was every fully resolved. It was a war waged at home where fathers fought and killed sons and brothers killed brothers. And like any civil war it becomes a much more cruel war in the sense that it reaches and destroys the boundaries of home and family.

It was very common before the war for a family table to be shared by a republican father, a fascist son, a republican son, and a fascist mother, for example. It was very, very common. And the other thing that makes the civil war more important than anything and it is quoted by Cásares in the film is that it prefigured World War II. It was less than a year after the end of the Spanish civil war that Hitler took Poland. And yet even when the Spanish Civil War was essentially a testing ground for most fascist practices and tactics and weaponries, Europe remained largely uninvolved.

Except for the International Brigades.

Yes, but that was mainly Chinese, Russian, Canada and the USA. But it was never an official position. The official position of the United States government was non-support. The Brigades were a group of dreamers and idealistic young men crossing the ocean, who found themselves in a very brutal, very cruelly-waged war. And the position of the rest of Europe like England and France was non-involvement. I think the only country that firmly supported the republican cause was Mexico. So if, and I believe this, if Europe had been active in stopping this and if America had firmly taken a position, I'm not saying the Second World War would have been avoided, but it would have probably been diminished, delayed or stopped. It's a war that has enormous consequences in a way. And that's why Cásares says, "Fear makes you see things. And Europe right now is sick with fear."

The children don't seem as afraid of the war as they are their immediate worries, like Jacinto or the ghost...

Children are automatic generators of magic. They tend to fantasise about so many things. And that's why in the movie I actually make them not afraid of the war so much. They don't understand the war. That's an adult thing. But they are afraid of Jacinto and the ghost. Those two things are much more present to the children than war. When they talk about war, they talk about war in children's terms. One of them likes it because you can see planes flying low, and another one just talks about it in terms of lights in the sky. But none of them really articulates any more sophisticated point of view about the war.

How does that connect with the image of the bomb that falls in the middle the courtyard and doesn't explode?

I wanted to have a symbol in the movie that represented war because the orphanage is so far away. I needed something that was almost like a totem that reminded you: you may be far away geographically, but here I am - I'm war. And on the other hand I wanted very much to have a symbol that didn't "pay off" like in a Hollywood movie - that is, that exploded at the end. I actually very purposely decided that there was a huge explosion but the bomb remained undetonated. And the reason for this is found in the inaction of the objects, because the only way I can deal with war in this movie is to say, "and the bomb still is unexploded in the middle of the patio". And that's one of the last images in the epilogue is the bomb still there standing proud in the middle of the courtyard.

And I also wanted, on the other hand, an object that's a symbol of war for the adults, but that for children symbolises everything they fear and you know, became a totem for them that they talk about, a character that they consulted. And more importantly for Jaime, became a symbol of the night he was most ashamed of and most afraid of. And that's why when he talks about the bomb in those terms he says, "People say 'it's not dead' but I don't believe it. It's still alive". Because he is still ashamed, he still has a secret that's why I leave the bomb on the road.

Jaime's character seems to be caught between childhood and adulthood...

Jaime is the bridge between Jacinto and the kids. He's the one with more complex emotions. That's why he shares even the same initials as Jacinto. He is a bully, but instead of never changing like Jacinto, in the middle of the movie reaches out to the other child and saves himself. All the main characters that are "positive" and give the movie forward momentum, share the same initials: Cásares, Carlos, Carmen, Conchita. And Jacinto and Jaime share the same first initials. I like to layer my movies with things that mean something to me, but I don't bring them to the foreground.

Are there any other examples of this kind of layering in the movie?

The entire movie, if you watch it closely more than once, you will realise it is constructed as a rhyme. The opening is very similar to the closing. Cásares has two moments in which he is reflected in the mirror and very differently, Carmen. What I wanted was rhymes that changed. Looking in the mirror the first time he is more gentle and the second time, he is more poignant. There are two moments of Cásares reciting poetry: the first one is much more normal; the second one is much more poignant. There are two children that fall into the water in the course of the movie. The first one is much more matter of fact. The second one, remembered in flashback, is much more poignant. There are two moments in which characters observe someone dying and his blood bubbles towards the surface in the exact same manner. And those are, the first one is more "normal". I wanted to have two unrequited love stories in the movie, the child (Jaime) who loves Conchita, but is incapable of telling her. And Cásares, who loves Carmen, but is incapable of telling her.

And the reason for this symmetry is I felt that it was interesting to make the movie symmetric and the characters asymmetric including Carmen with one leg and Cásares, who is an idealist, a revolutionary and the most romantic lover ever created and yet impotent and cowardly. And Jacinto, who is the most beautiful lover you could ever wish for, is sadly rotten to the core. So all the characters I wanted to flaw in a way, with the exception of Carlos, who I felt was very brave, but in a kid way. He was not inordinately brave. And that's why, towards the end of the movie, Carlos and Jaime become almost one single character.

Carmen is an interesting character because she seems hard on the outside and yet as the movie proceeds, her ideals are revealed.

The biggest problem in dividing the world into good and bad is that we never go to the trouble of knowing people beyond the surface. Jacinto, who's the bad guy in the movie, has a couple of very revealing moments about how he feels about his past and why he plays a fascist's role in this microcosm of the war in Spain. And by the same token, Carmen, who seems to be almost like a fairy tale headmistress reveals herself to be a bitter woman, but a woman with a really good heart.

And taken to an extreme, even the ghost is seen in a different way. I start the movie by not showing the ghost, therefore making him scary. And as the movie progresses, I show you the ghost more and more in order to make him less scary and more sad. By the end of the movie, you will not find the ghost scary anymore, but a really tragic little figure. The point is: you shouldn't fear the dead, you should fear the living.

Talk about your dense use of sound.

With the four movies I've made, I've tried to make them with as much of a soundscape as possible. In the same way that I've planned the images to exist in a world of amber, I also planned the movie to have this low frequency and this echo, kinds of sounds that really make an emptiness and a vastness, almost a childlike point of view of the building. But that also gave the building some form of life, you know. I tried this on mimic and it worked very well. So I'm repeating it here. But the only variation here what I tried to do, I also tried to create a 3-d feeling in the theatre by having the sound exist in the four walls. So if a child runs away, the child runs around the theatre, for example. And I did some of the Foley sound work myself. For example, for the sound of the ghost materialising, I came up with the idea of using coca cola and grains of rock salt - they make the coca cola fizz. So we recorded that and we tweaked that sound digitally to make it sound even more ethereal. And for the sound of the ghost's voice, we added a drop of water with all the consonants, so that his voice has a liquid sound. I personally did the sound of the ghost's asthmatic breathing.

But mainly I hired people that I think are brilliant to do sound design. I explained to them the philosophy of the movie. It's a part of the filmmaking process where you gain the most freedom, where no one is telling you, "You have to finish now".

I'm very much in favour of music in the movies being subtle. But I'm not afraid of making it strong and melodramatic. A movie like this cannot be an objective account of emotions. It's a very emotional movie for me. So I looked for a musician that could have that subtlety and be able to do the tonal changes almost in the space of a bar, to go from sweet to scary or ominous and that was Javier Navarrete.

What about the visual style of the film? Were you inspired by painters, or other films?

The idea was, first of all, to enclose the movie in Romanesque arches, round forms that remind you of amber encapsulating an insect. And I went with about three main colours on the palette: amber, dirty white and moss green. They gave it an almost monotone feeling that is very beautiful because it reminds you both of an insect in amber and an old photograph - both referenced in the movie. And we filtered the movie with sepia filters (chocolate #2 and chocolate #3).

And then not only the shape and colours were controlled, but also the appearance of the ghost, it was very important for the ghost to be actually beautiful in a way by having him float in water even when he is walking in air. So we created a digital medium that moves with him and has little particles floating. It has blood escaping from his forehead, like underwater, and that gives it a very dreamy quality. And I kept saying, "This has to look almost like a religious statue of a little saint."

There is a religious aspect to the imagery in the film. Obviously, there is the religious statuary...

It was true to the reality. I was dealing with a republican school. Some people, in order to ward off the fascists were hanging religious statuary as if to say "We're Catholic. We're not republicans."

There is communist imagery in the way the kids team up to fight off their oppressor. This is a kind of a Marxist horror film in some ways.

I was trying to do a little microcosm of the war, where the children become the people of Spain, the new Spain if you want to use that term, which I hate, the newborn Spain. And the older people become the republican Spain, which was extremely well meaning, extremely solid ethically, but not completely in control of everything. And inbreeding inside the walls was a very young fascism that essentially has a terrible class complex. And that is essentially the microcosm in the movie. And that's why in the movie when she talks about hunting the mammoth she says the primitive man acted in groups. No one could give up. They all acted as one. And that's why when Jaime's telling them, "We have to kill Jacinto in order to survive," and they tell him that they are bigger and stronger and he says, "Yes, but there are more of us," which is a beautiful leftist statement.

And the way the children stab Jacinto looks like cavemen going after the mammoth.

And what I tried to do in order not to make the violent moment joyous in the movie. First of all dramatically, I gave Jacinto his most tender moment a few minutes before he gets killed. Second of all, I tried to keep my camera away from showing the children triumphant. I stayed with him as much as possible. I tried to avoid seeing the faces of the children - only their legs and their lances. And it is one of the few moments in the movie that is absolutely completely devoid of scorn, not to say what I think about that death, not to make it triumphant and not to celebrate in and not to make it tragic, but to make it as distant as possible. And therefore, the only music you hear during that killing is the distant tango coming from the kitchen.

Because usually the horror genre is done by people that don't care, I tried to layer them with the care and the attention to detail that someone else would put into a historical drama or a costume drama. And I love to put all these things in, not so much for people to necessarily notice them consciously, but to have them be there. If anyone wants to dig, they're there.

Tell me about the image of The devil's backbone.

What happened is that spina bifida is a real disease that was not diagnosed until the 1940s. But before that people gave it all kinds of names, among them the "devil's backbone". I think it encompasses the movie perfectly because The devil's backbone is something that cripples childhood even before it's born. And that to me is what happens to these children. And Cásares says it very clearly: "Some people say this is what happens to the children of no one, the children that shouldn't have been born". And that is a very sad fable.

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