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'Devil's Backbone, The'

Horror of war, ghosts send chill in 'Devil's Backbone'

Friday, February 22, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"The Devil's Backbone" tells a ghost story that attempts to serve as a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that left behind enough carnage and shattered political hopes to populate a few rooms in the haunted house of 20th-century European history.

'The Devil's Backbone'

RATING: R for violence, language and some sexuality. Subtitled.

STARRING: Federico Luppi, Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Fernando Tielve.

DIRECTOR: Guillermo Del Toro.

WEB SITE: www.sonyclassics.com/



There's the rub. No mere horror movie can approximate the real thing and could end up trivializing it, if not straining for significance.

The latter is more true of "The Devil's Backbone," now at the Harris Theater, in part because the fighting rages only on the periphery of director Guillermo Del Toro's movie. In fact, the outcome is all but inevitable when a boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at Santa Lucia, a crumbling outpost in the desert that takes in orphans of the storm -- the children of dead Republican soldiers.

The few remaining teachers are old leftists drying up like the land around them: headmistress Carmen (Marisa Peredes of "All About My Mother"), who walks around on a wooden leg, and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi of "Men with Guns"), who treats his impotence by dipping into a jar containing rum used to preserve some malformed fetuses.

If they represent Spain's doomed government, caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) stands in for the nationalists. He's a brute who was brought up at the orphanage, resents the place and the people who run it and is interested mainly in the Republican gold that Carmen keeps hidden away for the cause.

As if there isn't enough symbolism in the movie, an unexploded bomb stands in the orphanage courtyard. We know something's going to blow up by film's end. But there's another dormant danger lying in wait here -- the ghost of a boy named Santi who died on the night the bomb dropped into the courtyard.

"The Devil's Backbone" functions better as a straight horror story. Del Toro has a knack for establishing atmosphere and a creepy tension -- he made his reputation with a vampire film called "Cronos" -- and he also seems to have an affinity for stories involving children. His previous release, "Mimic," began with a medical epidemic affecting children in rows of hospital beds not unlike those the boys occupy in the orphanage.

The creatures in both films make their homes in dark, underground spaces -- a subway tunnel in "Mimic," a water-filled pit in "The Devil's Backbone." The difference is that the bugs in the earlier film are malevolent while the ghost in the current movie seeks revenge only on the person responsible for his death.

But the best scenes in the movie center on the boys and their relationship. Carlos must deal with the hostility of Jaime (Inigo Garces), the leader of the pack. Later, they must band together to protect the other boys from the danger that threatens everyone in the school.

This is the real heart of the movie, or should be. The ghost story and the war metaphor are McGuffins, overblown means to an uneven end.

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