The Devil's Backbone (2001) Criterion Collection DVD Review: Hell Is for Children

"I don't think I need a spine. It's holding me back." -Satan
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During the mid '90s, my fascination with all things foreign and artsy-like led me into the welcoming arms of two entirely different movie directors: Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar - whose quirky comedies such as Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown greatly appealed to my youthful pretentious flair - and a Mexican-born fantasy filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who caught my eye with the inventive 1993 flick, Cronos. Needless to say, when I found out the 2001 Spanish/Mexican-made film The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo) was a collaboration between the two, I shat myself in excitement. And my enthusiasm was well worth the cleaning bill for those soiled trousers.

Here, Guillermo del Toro (or, Bill of the Bulls, to you white folk) paves the way for his later international hit Pan's Labyrinth with this haunting tale of a ten-year-old boy (Fernando Tielve) who takes it upon himself to unravel a mystery at an orphanage. Yes, it's essentially a Spanish giallo with a child protagonist and an eerie supernatural vibe. And how can you not like that?

After his father is killed in battle during the final year of the Spanish Civil War, a young and now alone Carlos (Tielve) winds up on the doorstep of a remote orphanage located somewhere out in the country. There, our prepubescent hero becomes enthralled with a large unexploded bomb that resides partially buried in the courtyard - a present courtesy the ongoing combat between the Republicans and Nationalists around the country. Thankfully, the device has been disarmed - though it carries with it a story of its own. You see, the very night it appeared, another boy disappeared from the orphanage completely - and his removal from the equation has been replaced with the manifestation of a ghostly figure that presently haunts the grounds.

And, as we all know, there's nothing scarier than the ghosts of kids. Heck, Japan's made a mint off of that one. But instead of going for the throat via the less-than-subtle gore route that Japanese movie makers tend to make the most of, director/co-writer/co-producer Guillermo del Toro and his (to date) one-time producing partner Pedro Almodóvar build up the tension with a more traditional style of horror. Here, Mr. of the Bulls invokes the spirit (pun intended) of the classic Universal horror films from the '30s and '40s, whilst relying on good old-fashioned, well-written storytelling to convey his dramatic narrative(s) - something we rarely get in today's domestic features of fear. Íñigo Garcés (Pan's Labyrinth), Federico Luppi (Cronos), Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega (Tesis), Junio Valverde, and Irene Visedo also star.

Of course, this isn't the first time we've come across this one. The Devil's Backbone has hit DVD in the US twice before now: once in 2001 as a barebones release with some "Honestly, it's not a foreign flick!" style artwork, and again in 2004 with several (then-)new special features and a "Hey, look: it's a foreign flick!" feel to it. As it turns out, however, the third time is the charm here - as Criterion's new Blu-ray/2-Disc DVD editions boast the best to be had in terms of video and audio quality, and bonus materials to boot.

With their collective tongue planted firmly in cheek, the folks at The Criterion Collection have assigned this contemporary classic horror/thriller a prestigious number in their catalogue: #666 - as can be seen on the release's spine (get it?). But they didn't stop there, kids. The disc presents a near-perfect (for SD) video transfer, along with a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix with removable English subtitles. Accompanying the main feature in this two-disc set are a number of special features, which begin with an introduction to the film, feature-length audio commentary from Señor del Toro, and a theatrical trailer on Disc One (all of which have been ported over from the 2004 Sony DVD release), and an assortment of featurettes (interviews, making-of, etc.), deleted scenes, and storyboards on Disc Two.

Highly recommended.

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