The Devil's Backbone [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (5th August 2017).
The Film

“The Devil’s Backbone” (“El Espinazo del Diablo”) (2001)

During the midst of the Spanish Civil War, young Carlos’ father is off fighting with the rebel forces. Taken to a boy’s orphanage in the middle of nowhere and left there by his tutor, Carlos (played by Fernando Tielve) must endure a life at the desolate and isolated place along with a group of other boys less fortunate. Some become immediate friends as Carlos has comics with him. Others such as the older Jaime (played by Íñigo Garcés) is a bullying leader seeing himself as a force of power among the children.

Overseeing the orphanage is a group of adults. Casares (played by Federico Luppi) is a doctor. Carmen (played by Marisa Paredes) is the headmistress. Jacinto (played by Eduardo Noriega) is the groundskeeper. Conchita (played by Irene Visedo) is a teacher. While the boys are receiving strict care at the institute, something horrific is lurking in the shadows. The boys call it “the one who sighs”, a voice of a ghost that haunts the place. Carlos’ bed was formerly occupied by Santi (played by Junio Valverde), who disappeared one night during an air raid, never to be found. Though the boys say that Santi most likely ran away into the mountains, Jaime actually knows the truth. And the truth is more horrifying the ghost itself…

Director Guillermo del Toro’s 1993 independent debut “Cronos” was an immediate cult hit and a breakthrough for Mexican cinema internationally. His 1997 Hollywood debut “Mimic” was a fairly large budget effort that did not meet expectations critically or commercially. His next film would be another stab at the horror genre but in a very different direction from the previous efforts. “Cronos” delved in science fiction horror, “Mimic” was a shape shifting monster movie, and “The Devil’s Backbone” would be a supernatural horror set during a war. “The Devil’s Backbone” is a very densely layered piece, with multiple elements in the plotline and highly detailed characters. There is the viewpoint of the children with the scary life in the orphanage - the strict control by the adults, bullying and peer pressure, isolation, and of course the ghost that haunts the halls. For the adults, Casares and Carmen’s relationship is strained as he has become impotent over the years and for her she had lost a leg. Jacinto and Conchita are an engaged couple yet Jacinto is having a secret relationship with Carmen. Jacinto may be pleasing the headmistress but his real aim is to gain access to the gold that is being kept at the institute - the riches of the rebel fighters. Even with the multiple plotlines against the backdrop of the Civil War, “The Devil’s Backbone” never loses focus, successfully melding the plotlines together for a very satisfying storytelling experience.

Stylistically the visuals in the film are incredible. Highly influenced by gothic horror and the Italian horror films of Mario Bava, the use of colors in the film were highly meticulous. The outdoor locations in Spain are absolutely breathtaking as if one were watching Italian westerns from the 1960s, where many were actually shot on location in Spain. The interiors of the orphanage have a gothic look to them and the lighting of the scenes - from the brightly golden brown hues of the daytime to the dark blue tinted night scenes are reminiscent of tinted silent horrors such as “Nosteratu” (1922). Lensed by longtime collaborator Guillermo Navarro, one of the major beauties of the film is the look of itself. The centerpiece of the set is the elephant in the room, or literally the bomb in the ground. The unexploded bomb that sits in the courtyard is a harsh warning to the characters as well as the audience - death is always there, just waiting for its moment to come. Not only the visuals but the sound design is very detailed. From the haunting score by Javier Navarrete to the use of the sound effects all around the 5.1 soundscape, it is a swirling mix that can give nightmares, and that is very effective.

The supernatural element through the eyes of children is an homage to the Grimm Brothers fairy tales of centuries ago as well as films such as “Spirit of the Beehive” (1973), which is set during the Franco regime and features children as protagonists. Though marketed as a ghost story and most remembered for the ghostly scenes, the scenes with the adults are the scariest of all. Soldiers killing rebels in cold blood, Jacinto exacting revenge with complete disregard for life, and how greed can overtake simple common sense. War is a deplorable time and can turn men into animals. The children on the other hand have a chance at making a better future. Horror and war have been intertwined but for supernatural horror and war, they can range from realistic horror such as “Saving Private Ryan” to insane comical horror such as “Dead Snow”. Del Toro would make a spiritual follow-up with “Pan’s Labyrith” in 2006, which also takes place during the Spanish Civil War but this time with a girl experiencing supernatural phenomena, and that film would be a critical and also commercial smash internationally, cementing Del Toro’s status as a master filmmaker.

“The Devil’s Backbone” was a major success in Spain when in was released in April 2001. Screening at various festivals around the world later that year, the US theatrical release by Sony Pictures Classics came at an unfortunate time of being scheduled for November 2001, only two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A horror film with children based in war was not the easiest film to market at the time. Reviews for the film were fantastic but finding an audience was difficult. Thankfully the film has experienced greater acclaim from audiences in the home video market. In the United States alone the film was issued three times - From Columbia Tristar in 2002, then a special edition from Columbia Tristar in 2004, then a Blu-ray and DVD edition from The Criterion Collection 2013. Umbrella Entertainment has finally brought this 21st century early classic to Blu-ray in Australia.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray which can play back on any Blu-ray player worldwide

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, in the original theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The original 35mm camera negative element was scanned and remastered in 2K for the US Criterion Collection Blu-ray in 2013 and this Umbrella Entertainment release seems to utilize the same remastered transfer. Colors and details have always been important for the film’s atmosphere and this transfer does it justice. Dark tones and bright scenes look outstanding with well reproduced colors throughout. There are no major issues of film damage or errors in the transfer, looking nearly perfect. Overall there is nothing much to fault.

The runtime for the film is 107:37.

Audio

Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
The original Castilian Spanish language track is presented in lossless 5.1. As stated before the soundscape was a very active one, with music, effects, and dialogue well balanced within the 5.1 track. Dialogue is clear and easy to hear from the center area while the music and effects envelop the environment fully.

There are optional English subtitles available for the film in a white font. The text is easy to read with no issues of grammar or spelling to be found.

Extras

Audio Commentary with director Guillermo del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro
This audio commentary features the director and cinematographer speaking English and revealing that it is for both their first audio commentary track to record. They still seem to know what they are doing by providing a lot of background information such as their own history working together, the film’s genesis, behind the scenes anecdotes, and much more. There were some points where it seemed the commentary was not properly synched with the film, but only for a few seconds. An example is the accidental gunfiring scene the sound of the gunshot can be heard in the commentary track a few seconds before it happens o screen. This commentary was originally available on the original 2002 DVD edition.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Prologue by Guillermo del Toro (0:48)
The director introduces the film and the special features for the disc. Interesting is that he says “Commentaries” meaning more than one. There was the 2002 commentary as mentioned above as well as a 2004 audio commentary by del Toro himself that was available in the Special Edition DVD. Though the Umbrella Entertainment disc only has one commentary track as listed above. This was previously on the US Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD.
in 1080i 60hz in AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 5.1

"Behind the Scenes: Spanish Gothic" interview with Guillermo del Toro (17:53)
Del Toro sits for a solo interview in this piece. Talked about are the writing of the film, the inspirations taken such as the Grimm Brothers, memories of the Toronto premiere and the US reception. This was previously on the US Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD.
in 1080i 60hz in AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 5.1 with no subtitles

"¿Que es un fantasma? The Making of The Devil's Backbone" featurette (27:16)
This featurette includes interviews with the various cast and crew members, and behind the scenes footage. Topics discussed are notes on each of the main characters, the location choice, the makeup effects, and much more. A fairly good overview of the film without giving too many spoilers away. This was previously on the Columbia Tristar Special Edition DVD and on the US Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD.
in 1080i 60hz (upscaled), in 1.33:1 and windowboxed 1.78:1, in Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtitles

Spanish Language Featurette from 2002 (12:48) (1080p)
Taken from the same interview sessions from the “¿Que es un fantasma?” featurette and sometimes having some overlapping portions, this featurette is a slightly condensed version of the previous one. This also features interviews, behind the scenes footage, and film clips. There are burned-in yellow English subtitles for the featurette, though in the film clips there are burned-in white English subtitles. This featurette was previously on the original Columbia Tristar 2002 DVD.
in 1080p (upscaled), in 1.33:1 and windowboxed 1.78:1, in Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 with burned-in English subtitles

Deleted Scenes (with optional audio commentary by Guillermo del Toro) (with Play All)
- "Carlos and the Principal" (0:51)
- "Encounter in the Plaza" (1:11)
- "Carmen and Conchita" (1:03)
- "I'm Coming with You" (0:30)

Some trimmed scenes are offered here which were basically unnecessary in moving the plot along. Del Toro offers comments on the scenes in an alternate audio track, though you might miss it. The commentary track is not available in the menus and can only be accessed with the audio button on the remote. These were previously on the Columbia Tristar Special Edition DVD and on the US Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD.
in 1080i 60hz (upscaled), in 1.85:1, in Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 with optional English subtitles (film audio), in English Dolby Digital 1.0 with no subtitles (commentary)

Storyboard Comparisons (61:44)
The original storyboards are presented along with the film’s audio in the background. Some scenes are a splitscreen showing the film on the bottom and sketches above, while other scenes have the storyboards in full frame. The storyboards were also on the US Criterion Collection Blu-ray, though the runtimes are different due to the Criterion presenting them in multiangle form while the Umbrella release present the multiangles back to back.
in 1080i 60hz (upscaled), in 1.33:1, in Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

"Director's Notebook" featurettes
- (2:23)
- (1:48)
- (2:09)
- (2:01)

Four short featurettes have Del Toro discussing elements from the film that were originally ideas and clippings collected in his notebook of ideas. This was on the US Criterion Collection release, though on the Criterion it was an interactive notebook where clicking through would take viewers through text and images along with the featurettes. On this release only the short featurettes are included.
in 1080i 60hz in AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 5.1

Theatrical Trailer (2:05)
The original American theatrical trailer. The picture is slightly wobbly, but the image is fairly clean.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in Dolby Digital 5.1 with English text

While the extras are plentiful on this release, there are a few extras on the US Criterion release such as interviews, an interactive bonusview feature and the full “Director’s Notebook” feature that were not ported to the Australian release. In addition, the 2004 audio commentary from the Special Edition is not carried over. The US Criterion release includes it but does not include the 2002 commentary or the 2002 featurette offered on the Australian release so both have their pros and cons.

Packaging

The coverart is reversible, with the inner side having identical artwork with the exception of the Australian ratings logo and the overhead banner claiming “From the visionary director of Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy” being removed.

Overall

“The Devil’s Backbone” put filmmaker Guillermo del Toro on the critical map again following the troubled production of “Mimic”, and rightfully so. Gothic horror, war horror, a children’s fairy tale, and a ghost story melded together, the film continues to be discussed and loved more than 15 years since its initial release. The Umbrella Entertainment disc gives excellent marks in image and sound plus well rounded extras making this a highly recommended release.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A Extras: A- Overall: A

 


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