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Guillermo del Toro's ambitious 2001 gothic horror drama gets a massively impressive high-def release on Criterion Blu-ray....
Criterion / 107 Minutes / 2001 / Unrated / Street Date: July 30, 2013
Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to the Criterion aisles (his Cronos was released by the studio a while back), but his Spanish Civil War film The Devil’s Backbone certainly doesn’t deserve the iconic spine number it received (it’s the studio’s 666th DVD/BD release). I mean, the guy’s stock is certainly high right now, with Pacific Rim exploding onto the international cinema market and another Hobbit sequel slated for Christmas release, but even if you stand by the idea that del Toro is one of our great film artists of the moment, The Devil’s Backbone is surprisingly and consistently limp.
It’s by no means a bad film, but even though it reaches to instill its gothic drama with more than a little Victor Erice impressionism, the movie feels weighty and leaden where it should be scrappy and devious. There’s an inertia to the movie’s vision that amps up as it goes along, which is the stamp of a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing, but even if The Devil’s Backbone has more historical prescience than most other straight-out horror movies, that doesn’t mean it’s all that much fun to sit through.
Our tale takes place during the Spanish Civil War. Early in the movie, Carlos’ (Fernando Tielve’s) father is killed in battle, and the boy is sent to an orphanage where (surprise, surprise) strange things begin to happen. There is the constant fear of Fascist attack, but in the wide eyes of our young protagonist, the mysterious stories about a boy who disappeared not too long ago are what keep him from maintaining any kind of mental stasis. Something is afoot here, and no one knows exactly what it is or where it’s coming from.
Some critics have cited The Devil’s Backbone as classy and smart, and they’re probably right: even if del Toro’s richly-constructed film has serious lapses into dramatic tedium, there’s no question that there are historical and psychological elements running freely under the movie’s gothic surface. However, recognizing that these exist and those uniting to form a successful undercurrent of entertainment are two different things: The Devil’s Backbone is an accomplished work, to a certain regard, but it falls into that rarefied realm of Criterion films where it’s more important than it is good. And for spine number 666 on the Criterion line, many of us were hoping for something better….