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The Devil's Backbone: Special Edition

Director Guillermo Del Toro is something of a journeyman. Though he started out in Mexican television during the 1980s, he began his film career as a make-up effects man, working up to his directorial debut, which came in the form of 1993's creepy Kronos. It was a solid reworking of vampire mythos, and though viewed as art-house fare, it was received well enough to land him a Hollywood assignment, which resulted in 1997's troubled production of Mimic — a film that came out at a time when Hollywood didn't know how to release non-slasher horror films — which led to a four-year hiatus. Returning to the director's chair in the 21st century, Del Toro has seen a flurry of work, with 2001's The Devil's Backbone ("El Espinazo del Diablo") leading to Blade 2, and in 2004 he adapted the comic Hellboy for the big screen. For many young directors, shooting horror movies is a way to branch into the mainstream by making a film on the cheap (along the lines of what Sam Raimi has done). But Del Toro always has been interested in horror and the fantastical, making him one of the genre's most promising figures. And with The Devil's Backbone he draws upon a multitude of genres for his best and most rounded effort yet. Taking place in 1939 during the Spanish Civil War, the film recounts how ten-year-old Carlos (Fernado Tielve) is left at an orphanage after his parents are killed and his tutors have joined the war effort. Reluctant to accept his new home, Carlos is assigned the bed of a missing student, Santi — whom many of the students fear is dead — provoking the local bully Jaime (Inigo Carces) to make things hard on Carlos. But after a late-night adventure to prove his mettle, Carlos sees a little boy's ghost, whom he figures must be the lost boy — and who frightens him off when the ghost tells him "some of you will die." All the while, the orphanage's laborer Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) is trying to find the school's hidden gold, which one-legged headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) is holding for the revolutionaries. She takes care of the rebels, as her dead husband was a supporter, but now her home life consists of a twisted relationship with both ex-pupil Jacinto and the impotent doctor Casares (Frederico Luppi), who has spent decades nursing a crush on her. With the war nearby, things grow increasingly dangerous for the rebellion-supporting teachers, who feel it is time to leave their area. But the mystery of the dead pupil and the search for the gold must continue before anyone can leave.

*          *          *

W.C. Fields always joked about never working with children or animals, but he had a point: They're the least disciplined of co-stars and require the utmost patience. Thus, when a director manages to get a good, unaffected performance out of a child actor it seems like a small miracle. And yet Del Toro does so in The Devil's Backbone with an entire school of youngsters, seamlessly blending the stories of both the children and the adults with the thematic elements of youthful imagination, horror, romance, and war, all without missing a beat. Del Toro says he loves melodrama, and it shows as some of the twists and perversity of characters could easily have been found in a Douglas Sirk film. But the director's command of the story keeps all the elements in play and never over-the-top. Maybe it's because Del Toro is an avid comic book fan, and if he has learned anything from his hobby it's a sense of framing and how to create striking visuals, which keeps the story constantly involving and inventive. Working with director of photography Guillermo Navarro, The Devil's Backbone is gorgeous and surreal, with many wild ideas and imagery — one of the best used is a defused bomb stuck in the middle of the orphanage's courtyard, and though it becomes a focal point of the story, the image is so potent it feels Buñuelian. However, perhaps the most interesting thing about the film is how it views the supernatural, recognizing that great evil does not come from some "other," but from inside. The story plays with the surreal, but as the tagline of the movie suggests (rather fittingly for a picture tangentially about war and strife), "The living will always be more dangerous than the dead." Columbia TriStar's Special Edition second release of The Devil's Backbone presents the film in a spanking new anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that improves on the original, and in Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in the original Spanish with optional English subtitles. For the double-dip, the only remaining supplements are the storyboard comparisons, and trailers for this and other Sony titles. Though there was already a commentary track on the first disc, Guillermo Del Toro has recorded a new track for this release. Other new supplements include a longer "making-of" in Spanish with optional subtitles (27 min.), four deleted scenes (4 min.) with optional director commentary, five still galleries for Characters, Art Direction/Set Design, Prosthetic Effects, Thumbnails, and Del Toro's Director's Notebook. Also new is a "Director's Thumbnail Track," which acts as a subtitle track showing Del Toro's sketches with the appropriate scenes. Keep-case.
—DSH



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