A quiet, intricately woven ghost story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in the early 20th century, The Devil's Backbone is arguably Guillermo del Toro's most effective and most personal film, and by his own admission, it's his own favorite among the other fine horror flicks (such as Cronos, Mimic, Blade 2, and Hellboy) on his impressive resume. Del Toro reserves a special place in his soul for this gorgeous, haunting film, evidenced by this new DVD edition's heartfelt and enthusiastic audio commentary, which is alone worth repurchasing The Devil's Backbone on disc.
But, you might say, the previous DVD was just fine! Why are we getting all these slight upgrades of perfectly reasonable discs? (See the utterly superfluous, recent releases of The Fast and the Furious and The Bourne Identity for evidence.) And yes, you have a strong argument against studios' increasing tendencies to cash in on upcoming sequels and DVD releases of related films. In this case, Sony has apparently decided that we need another version of The Devil's Backbone in anticipation of del Toro's upcoming DVD of Hellboy. What's different here is that this new DVD is definitely not superfluous. Del Toro and Sony have put together a new package that really demands attention from fans of the film: Image and sound quality are improved, and a few thoughtfully produced supplements make this a wonderful disc to add to your library and even complement the existing release.
At an orphanage in the dusty Spanish countryside, far removed from the violence of the war, a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), has just been abandoned by his guardians, and abruptly faces the prospect of a melancholy childhood among the rest of the forgotten boys. The owners of the orphanage—the regal and impotent Casares (Federico Luppi) and the stately, wooden-legged Carmen (Marisa Paredes)—try their best to provide for the boys and shelter them from the reality of their future in the midst of their country's turmoil. Gradually materializing as a ghastly microcosm of Spain's political turmoil, The Devil's Backbone explores the gloomy orphanage's social politics but mostly concerns the mystery of a ghost who haunts the forlorn halls and dusty grounds.
Carlos finds himself a particular focus of the seemingly malevolent spirit of Santi (Junio Valverde), a creepy, ethereal presence that seems intent on communicating with Carlos. The group dynamic between the young boys builds realistically into a pack mentality, and Carlos is soon aligned with conflicted Jaime (Iñigo Garces) in his efforts to bring peace to Santi. Meanwhile, the villainous and greedy Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) is intent on destroying the orphanage's leadership from within.
The Devil's Backbone is a haunting yet beautiful film, full to brimming with metaphor and visual poetry. A constant reminder of the war outside, a huge undetonated bomb pokes from earth in the center of the orphanage's courtyard. The central characters act as potent symbols for the political parties involved in the war, and the mystery of Santi also resonates with Spain's predicament as a whole. The film's imagery is often subtly repeated, as in poetic refrains and framing devices, giving The Devil's Backbone a literary feel—appropriate, given the film's origins in fairy tale and gothic romance. One of the more remarkable aspects of this production is that del Toro seems to have communicated the story's emotional resonance to all involved, so that the entire film vibrates with energy of its metaphors and meaning.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Sony presents The Devil's Backbone in a striking new anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. This image boasts terrific definition and depth, and is very filmlike. It's a natural, organic look that rivals the very best of transfers. I was particularly taken not only by the levels of detail and sharpness, but also with the full-bodied nature of the color palette. You'll notice an ever-present and subtle graininess that, to me, only enhances the filmlike nature of the image and even complements the mood of the film. It's not an incredibly clean print—you'll notice tiny debris—but it remains a top-notch effort. I noticed only minor ringing.
A direct comparison with the previous release reveals that the new image is a bit sharper, with more accurate color, particularly skin tones. The comparison makes the older release seem muddy and flat when placed side-by-side with this new transfer. The old image has a subtly harsher appearance. The level of ringing, however, remains the same. Overall, I liken the difference to that between a Superbit release and its predecessor. I never thought the first Devil's Backbone release was any kind of slouch…but now I do.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a fine representation of the theatrical soundtrack. Dialog is clear and accurate, with only minor breakups at the top end, and it comes straight from the center, with only mild echo effects in the left/right/surrounds. Stereo panning is minimal. In fact, all surround activity is in the realm of ambience: Eerie sound effects and the score fare the best in those areas.
A direct comparison with the previous release reveals that the new sound presentation is very similar in character to the older release, except that the bass seems to have been beefed up to give the film a more ominous feel.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
This Devil's Backbone re-release falls under the increasingly popular and often-frustrating category of "must buy but also hang on to the original." The previous release boasts a 13-minute making-of featurette, a brief storyboard comparison, and—best of all—an outstanding audio commentary by director del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. It's del Toro's first-ever commentary and is extremely informative and entertaining. That commentary isn't reproduced here.
Instead, you get an all-new, non-stop Guillermo del Toro Commentary, which del Toro admits is more of a "rambling" over what he calls his "Mario Bava western." From the start, he announces that his intentions are to go in a "different direction" from that of his first effort, and to focus minutely on the story's symbols, themes, and gothic-romance archetypes. He talks eloquently about the film's backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, about the meaning of the film's title, and the nature of suspense. As a writer, I thoroughly enjoyed this track's story focus, in which he touches on the influence of fairy-tale horror ("innocent central figure," "child abandoned") on his imagery and themes. Del Toro proves himself to be a most fascinating commentator, as always, particularly rewarding with the knowledge that English is his second language. He expresses himself articulately and precisely. A total joy. Many might find such a track dry—it's certainly more scholarly than the first track, and requires your participation as a listener—but it's a rewarding look at the intricacies of The Devil's Backbone and will do more to enhance your appreciation of this film than any other supplement I can imagine. I love when he says, "You have to love the monster to make a great horror film."
Also included is a Director's Thumbnail Track, which lets you watch the movie synchronized with occasional del Toro thumbnail sketches appearing in the bottom-right corner. This function disables any subtitles—which is unfortunate, since it's a foreign-language film. Although the thumbnails are mildly interesting, they're too sporadic for this supplement to be exciting. I think the DVD producers should have combined this feature with the commentary.
The 27-minute "Que Es Un Fantasma": The Making of The Devil's Backbone is broken up into six individually accessible featurettes but also flows smoothly as one long documentary (when you press Play All). Enchanted Horror Tale (The Story) speaks to the origin of the film's story, with talking-head contributions from del Toro, writer Antonio Trashorras, and actor Edwardo Noriega. "Insects Trapped in Amber" (Production) offers insights from art director Cesar Macarron, unit production manager Esther Garcia, and director of photography Guillermo Navarro, with a particular focus on the film's color palette. Realizing del Toro's Vision (Prosthetic Effects) features interviews with make-up effects designers David Marti and Montse Ribe about blood and violence and ghostly decay. An Adult Approach (Working with Child Actors) focuses on del Toro's affinity with child performers, with good interview snippets with actor Fernando Tielve (Carlos). The longest section, Anchoring Fantasy in Everyday Life (The Characters), offers terrific input from many of the actors, including Federico Luppi (Casares), Inigo Garces (Jaime), Irene Visedo (Conchita), Eduardo Noriega (Jacinto), and Marisa Paredes (Carmen). Finally, A Director Like None Other (Working with del Toro) is obviously a celebration of the great working relationships that the cast and crew have with the director. Luppi, Paredes, Noriega, Marti, and Navarro all contribute to the praise, calling him, affectionately, "brilliant and a pain in the neck." This piece is in Spanish with English subtitles.
A Deleted Scenes section features four scenes adding up to only 4 minutes. They're titled Carlos and the Principal, Encounter in the Plaza, Carmen and Conchita: After the Confession, and "I'm Coming with You. None are terribly essential or fascinating, but they're worth a one-time viewing. You can watch with or without commentary by del Toro.
Thumbnail/Storyboard Comparisons offers split-screen views of six sequences from the film: Main Titles/Credits, Sleeping Quarters, The Bomb, The Ribbon, Keyhole, and Who Are You? Some of these comparisons offer looks at del Toro thumbnails, storyboards, and finished film, and some eschew the thumbnails.
A nice section titled Galleries lets you view original art (mostly extremely accomplished art by del Toro himself) for Characters, Art Direction/Design, Prosthetic Effects, Thumbnails, and Del Toro's Director's Notebook.
Wrapping up the extras are Previews for The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy, and Darkness Falls.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
After del Toro's recent foray into big-budget Hollywood comic-book fun, Hellboy, it's nice to return to the director's finer, more thoughtful work on The Devil's Backbone, a thoroughly engaging and poignant tale. This DVD offers a terrific opportunity to explore the film from a new perspective, with improved technical aspects and a commentary that's truly a winner.