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Devil's Backbone: Criterion Collection, The

The Criterion Collection // R // July 30, 2013
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted August 15, 2013 | E-mail the Author

Director Guillermo del Toro has enjoyed critical and commercial success during most of his 20-year film career, from mainstream blockbusters like Blade II, Hellboy and this year's Pacific Rim to more personal films like Pan's Labyrinth and Cronos. The Devil's Backbone (2001) falls squarely in the latter category: rather than hordes of vampires, the supervillain Rasputin or colossal monsters from another dimension, the only apparent threats here are a single ghost, a greedy caretaker and poverty. Though marketed as more of a supernatural horror film, this tale of orphaned children and their meager existence plays out more like a tragic character study than anything else. It's suspenseful, but in different ways than you'd expect.

Set in sun-drenched Spain of 1939, just before the country's Civil War came to a close, The Devil's Backbone follows young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) as he's unexpectedly left at an orphanage. He doesn't realize that his father has been killed in action, but it doesn't really matter at this point: with the nearest town more than a day's walk away, it seems like Carlos will be there for a while. The orphanage director (Marisa Paredes) is distant but fair, the doctor (Federico Luppi) takes an interest in the boy, and his fellow orphans eventually accept him as one of their own. Less enthusiastic about his arrival are Jaime (Inigo Garces), a bully interested in comic book art, and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a greedy caretaker who plans to break into a safe hidden inside the orphanage. Besides for their surroundings, however, everyone has one thing in common: they've all heard of Santi, a young boy's ghost that supposedly haunts the area at night. It's not very long before Carlos sees the ghost, but his curiosity eventually overwhelms fear.

The lesson, of course, is that "real-life" danger is usually much more frightening that anything our imaginations can dream up. To its credit, The Devil's Backbone always keeps one foot in reality: it rarely feels like it's headed in the direction of your average "jump scare" horror film, even when early sequences might suggest otherwise. This violent, dramatic tale of loneliness and superstition is laced with political undertones, but the real weight of the film is carried by excellent performances, terrific music and engaging visuals. It's well-known that del Toro is a lifelong fan of comic books, and the eye-catching imagery will linger in your brain long after the movie ends. While its third act and ending feel more predictable than poetic, The Devil's Backbone is still a memorable film almost every step of the way.

First-time viewers will find lots of similarities to del Toro's own Pan's Labyrinth, and that's not by accident. In a filmed introduction created for this Blu-ray edition, the director describes The Devil's Backbone as a "companion" to the Oscar-winning production, from its political undertones to more obvious elements like supernatural forces and innocent central characters. Criterion's package has no shortage of strengths either, including a flawless A/V presentation and a generous assortment of old and newer bonus features. So while the movie itself may not feel as seamless as Pan's Labyrinth, there's plenty here to enjoy...and if nothing else, this moody, atmospheric ghost story will get under your skin and stay there for a while.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Approved by director Guillermo del Toro and DP Guillermo Navarro, this 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer of The Devil's Backbone was created from a brand new 2K scan and looks terrific. The film's palette shifts dramatically at times, from the warm and vibrant tones of dusty, sun-beaten landscapes to the considerably cold and creepy nighttime scenes. There's plenty of darkness here and this Blu-ray handles shadow detail consistently well, ensuring we don't miss any important details along the way. No obvious digital imperfections, from compression artifacts to excessive noise reduction, could be spotted along the way. Unsurprisingly, The Devil's Backbone looks every bit as good as it needs to, which should impress first-time viewers and established fans in equal measure. In all respects, this is outstanding work.

DISCLAIMER: These promotional images are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.

The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, presented in the original Spanish with optional English subtitles, is also a strong effort. Dialogue, music and background effects are all robust and dynamic without fighting for attention, creating a very convincing soundstage on many occasions. As with most dramatic horror and suspense films, effective atmosphere is important to keep viewers on their toes...and though The Devil's Backbone is anything but your average "jump scare" film, it carries a high level of tension most of the way. Overall, it's an impressive presentation that, for my money, can't sound any better than it does here.

Packaging, Presentation & Menu Design

Seen below, Criterion's menu interface is smooth and easy to navigate. The 107-minute film has been divided into 15 chapters (including color bars) and this Blu-Ray is locked for Region "A" playback only. The disc is packaged in Criterion's usual "stocky" Blu-Ray keepcase, adorned with moody Mike Mignola artwork. A fold-out booklet includes tech specs, chapter names and an essay by film critic Mark Kermode.

Bonus Features

Several interesting extras have been ported from Columbia/TriStar's excellent 2004 Special Edition DVD, leading off with a feature-length Audio Commentary by director Guillermo del Toro. "Que es un fantasma?" (28 minutes), a six-part 2004 production documentary by Javier Soto, holds up well as a short-term retrospective. A Thumbnail Gallery features some nice images, but it only pops up occasionally during the film. Finally, a selection of Thumbnail/Storyboard Comparisons and four Deleted Scenes are also recycled, while the latter includes optional commentary by del Toro. Bridging this gap is the "Director's Notebook", which nicely organizes a few visual odds and ends from the previous release in a more efficient manner.

New to this Criterion Blu-ray, of course, are four Video Interviews. "Summoning Spirits" (14 minutes) features del Toro as he talks about Santi's creation and the visual effects that were used to do it. "Spanish Gothic" (18 minutes), again featuring the director, includes details about the story development and several comparisons to his own Pan's Labyrinth. "Designing The Devil's Backbone" (13 minutes) obviously focuses on the film's visual elements, including makeup and prosthetic work, storyboards and graphic design. Finally, "A War of Values" (16 minutes) features Spanish Civil War historian Sebastian Faber and his thoughts on the film's political themes. Finally, we get a Theatrical Trailer (3 minutes).

All bonus features have been presented in a mixture of 1080i and 1080p resolution, with optional English subtitles occasionally offered for Spanish translation purposes only. It's a fine mixture of supplements, especially since all of the previous Region 1 DVD extras have made the transition to this release.

Final Thoughts

The Devil's Backbone is a wonderful effort from a director who's had very little trouble adapting his unique style for mainstream audiences. For obvious reasons, Guillermo del Toro's effective ghost story will remind first time viewers of his own Pan's Labyrinth, from its innocent young protagonist to the unsettling special effects, though it's certainly got its own voice more often than not. Criterion's long-awaited Blu-ray also makes a terrific companion piece to Cronos, serving up a reference-quality A/V presentation and a fine assortment of entertaining, informative supplements, many of which are hosted the enthusiastic director. Overall, it's a stylish release that genre fans will sincerely enjoy and appreciate. Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.

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