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The Devilís Backbone (Guillermo Del Toro) 2001

Guillermo Del Toroís The Devilís Backbone is the story of a young orphaned boy who goes to a boarding school where ghosts roam the halls, but it couldnít be much different in tone than Harry Potter and the Sorcererís Stone. Itís not an adventure film, but is instead a rather weighty horror film, and it starts out promisingly enough. An unseen narrator questions what a ghost is, calls it a ďtragedy condemned to repeat itself again and againĒ and compares it to an insect trapped in amber. The imagery used in the prologue evokes a melancholy tone that never again feels so astute in the actual film (even when some of the same footage reappears in the narrative). The story takes place in a Spanish boyís school that is run by Carmen (All About My Motherís Marisa Paredes), the widowed wife of a leftist freedom fighter. A young boy, Carlos, enters the school, unknowingly orphaned (that he never finds out his parents are dead seems the filmís greatest tragedy) and promptly begins to see a ghost.

The film works overtime in establishing its setting during a Spanish Civil War, and attempts to turn most of the events in the film into allegorical episodes. The schoolís courtyard has a large, defused bomb in it suggesting the frail normalcy of life there might explode at any moment. This bit is effective, but unfortunately, most of the references to the war feel heavy-handed. The film, despite its supernatural occurrences, never manages to be very frightening at all, since the ghost was so obviously representative of wrongs of the war that he couldnít possibly be a real threat to Carlos, a fellow victim. The attempts to give that ghost a back-story rob him of all mystery, and shifts the focus of the story toward the living, who are far from complex. The filmís technical aspects do attain a complexity that the script lacks, however, and manage to impress. The film is well-shot and there are a bevy of solid performances, but the most interesting aspect of the film is its use of sound. Del Toroís Mimic, for all of its goofiness, managed to frighten most when the director opted to use sound effects to alert us to the presence of its giant cockroaches. This film uses sound similarly in this and other ways. As much as I found things to like about The Devilís Backbone, it left me cold, since its most unique aspects seemed also to be its most frustrating ones. I appreciate its attempts to elevate the ghost story from a simple fright-fest, but the director seems to want to badly too scare us to make it wholly effective as a political allegory. For my money, Iíll take the far superior The Others from fellow Spanish-language horror auteur Alejandro Amenabar. It's far more content to simply scare us, and scare us well.

**1/2

11/25/01

Jeremy Heilman