#228: The Devil’s Backbone

A movie about reds, the dead, and the truth

june gloom
3 min readFeb 19, 2024

This review was originally posted to Twitter on February 8th, 2020.

Initial release: April 20, 2001
Director: Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro has built a career on films dealing with the supernatural, often with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. So the lighter hand he takes with The Devil’s Backbone, a gothic tale of a haunted orphanage from early in del Toro’s career, makes it one of his best films.

It’s 1939 in Spain and the Civil War is about to end with a victory for the Nationalists under Franco. Carlos is a young boy who is dropped off at an orphanage by friends of his deceased Loyalist father, killed in the fighting. A massive bomb sits in the courtyard, defused but too big to remove. He manages to gain the respect of some would-be bullies, but unfortunately he’s given the former bed of Santi, a boy who disappeared the night the bomb landed. Not long after, he becomes convinced that the ghost of Santi is hiding in the basement below the kitchen. Aside from the few remaining teachers and staff, there’s Jacinto, a handsome bully who grew up at the orphanage and works as a caretaker. He knows, or at least suspects, that the orphanage is holding some gold for the Loyalists, and wants it for his own ends.

This film stands at the intersection of many things: gothic literature by way of M. R. James, a wartime historical drama, and a modernist take on the classic ghost story. It’s old-school and yet modern, eschewing traditional gothic settings for the hot, dry Spanish countryside. It’s interesting to compare this film to del Toro’s later film, Crimson Peak. That film, while good, doesn’t even try to be subtle; it’s a full-frontal supernatural assault, a sort of gender-inverse House of Usher on amphetamines. It’s a lurid shocker with a half-rotted mansion that’s constantly bleeding red clay the color of 1960s movie blood, which not coincidentally is the color of the angry ghosts that wander the upper levels of the house. The Devil’s Backbone is positively sedate in comparison. While the ghost of Santi is unsubtle in his own way, such as the way a skeleton seems visible at all times under his skin, or the way his cracked-porcelain head wound bleeds red smoke at all times, he’s markedly more sinister, but Carlos’ method of approach is more satisfying. That bomb, improbably large and imposing, just sits there in the courtyard, and the boys claim that you can hear it ticking away still. It represents a constant threat, and its placement in a late sequence when the film’s secrets are revealed is very telling.

The isolation of the orphanage is equally oppressive. If anything were to happen, nobody in the nearest town would know about it. This isolation has (mostly) guaranteed the children’s safety, but it’s also the greatest threat, as there’s no retreat from the danger within. There’s symbolism in that; a place full of innocent children, a place you would think they’d be safe in, and yet even here the war touches them. It is, after all, a place where “reds look after reds’ children.” But in the end the real villain isn’t Franco. Or even a ghost.

This is a beautifully shot film that shows del Toro’s eye for composition; he somehow knows how to pick shots that resemble the work of his frequent collaborator Mike Mignola (indeed, Mignola’s artwork decorates the box art for the Criterion release of this film.) If you like del Toro you owe it to yourself to watch this film; using the Spanish Civil War as a background colors this gothic ghost story in subtle ways. The moral desert of fascism is all around; innocence must naturally give way to action. This film is beautiful.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]