Believe in them or not, ghosts and related ghost stories have been part of folklore and storytelling since the dawn of time. Not surprisingly, they easily transitioned over to film rather well, even if not all filmmakers utilize the viewer's imagination as well as they should in eliciting the thrills, chills and requisite goosebumps from such tales.
Yet, and beyond some prominent, ghost-based films such as "The Others" and "The Sixth Sense," many of today's "scary" movies either neglect the spirits of the dead as the source of their frightful material, or simply relegate them to the stereotypical movie haunted house.
That's what's refreshing about "The Devil's Backbone," a unique, smart and complex ghost picture that might not do stellar box office business in the U.S. - after all, it's a subtitled Spanish film - but clearly delivers "the goods" when it comes to telling a well-told ghost tale.
Set in an old school serving as an orphanage at the end of the Spanish Civil War - that spanned the mid to late 1930s for you non-history buffs - the film's beauty lies in the fact that its ghost story is told on various levels, both of the literal and figurative kind.
The most obvious is the standard haunting concerning a young boy who met with a violent and untimely demise in the past and has since hung around in spirit form. While there's nothing really novel in regards to such matters - after all, that's how most ghost stories work - the way in which writer/director Guillermo Del Toro ("Mimic," "Cronos") co-writers Antonio Trashorras ("Lena") and David Muñoz ("Lena"), and the production team have set up and then executed the story and ghostly effects is quite effective.
Rather than utilizing the standard and now seemingly obligatory "jump scenes" to give the viewer a sudden jolty scare, the filmmakers allow the material's inherent creepiness and supernatural elements to establish the proper mood and viewer response. While clearly not terrifying to the point of making the weak-hearted faint - if films can even do that anymore in today's jaded world - the material is sufficiently spooky enough to please fans of old-fashioned, supernatural yarns.
The second ghost bit arrives in the form of Jacinto - nicely played by Eduardo Noriega ("Open Your Eyes," "Tesis") - whose past at the orphanage has haunted him so much that he wants to enact his revenge upon the place before heading out of Dodge. Although this part of the story could have used a little more back story and fleshing out to explain things better and make the character more dimensional (as he stands, the character is a bit too much of a straightforward creep-cum-villain), the whole element has a nice symbolic touch to it. It also obviously serves as the catalyst for everything that eventually transpires.
The final ghost element - one which has far more of a resonating metaphorical feel to it - involves the large, unexploded bomb that's stuck in the ground in the middle of the orphanage's courtyard. Now defused, hollow and thus echoey, the bomb is not only symbolic of past tragic events (including a pivotal one leading up to the first ghostly element), but also future potential explosiveness. Accordingly, the bomb is symbolic of things being ripe for blowing up.
All of those elements are nicely touched upon by voice over narration that opens and closes the show by briefly examining the meaning of what a ghost really is. After the various events transpire, the repetitive concluding narrative certainly carries more resonance than the first time around.
Performances are solid across the board, with Fernando Tielve (making his debut) and Iñigo Garcés ("My First Night," "Secrets of the Heart") doing a fine job portraying the main younger characters, while Marisa Paredes ("All About My Mother," "Life Is Beautiful"), Federico Luppi ("Men With Guns," "A Place in the World") and Irene Visedo ("April and Jules," "Cascabel") are all quite good playing their adult caretakers.
Overall, the film might not do or seem like much to those weaned on the slasher-style horror pictures that dominated the genre for so long. It certainly doesn't have the big, shocking twist of an ending like "The Others" or "The Sixth Sense," and it does retread some of the basic components of the usual ghost story.
Yet, its unique setting, multi-layered plot and strong artistic voice clearly make it worthy seeing, particularly if you enjoy well-made and well-told spooky films. Nothing groundbreaking, but certainly a great deal of creepy fun to behold and experience, "The Devil's Backbone" rates as a 7 out of 10.