The Devil's Backbone

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The Devil's Backbone
Espinazo del diablo poster.jpg
Original Spanish-language poster
Directed byGuillermo del Toro
Produced by
Written by
Narrated byFederico Luppi
Music byJavier Navarrete
CinematographyGuillermo Navarro
Edited byLuis De La Madrid
Distributed byWarner Sogefilms A.I.E. (Spain)
Release date
  • 20 April 2001 (2001-04-20) (Spain)
Running time
108 minutes[1][2]
  • Spain
  • Mexico
BudgetUS$4.5 million
Box officeUS$6.5 million

The Devil's Backbone (Spanish: El espinazo del diablo) is a 2001 gothic horror film directed by Guillermo del Toro, and written by del Toro, David Muñoz, and Antonio Trashorras.

The film is set in Spain, 1939, during the final year of the Spanish Civil War. The film was released to very positive reviews from critics and audiences.


Casares (Federico Luppi) and Carmen (Marisa Paredes) operate a small home for orphans in a remote part of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Helping the couple mind the orphanage are Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the groundskeeper, and Conchita (Irene Visedo), a teacher who is also involved with Jacinto. Casares and Carmen are aligned with the Republican loyalists, and are hiding a large cache of gold that is used to back the Republican treasury; perhaps not coincidentally, the orphanage has also been subject to attacks from Francisco Franco's troops, and a defused bomb sits in the home's courtyard.

One day, a boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at the home with Ayala and Domínguez, two republicans. They both ask Casares and Carmen to take him in because his father died fighting the nationalists. Casares and Carmen take him in, and the boy soon strikes up an unlikely friendship with Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), a boy with a reputation for tormenting other kids. But Carlos soon begins having visions of a mysterious apparition he can't identify, and hears strange stories about a child named Santi who went missing the day a bomb appeared near the orphanage. The bomb is lodged in the dirt at the center of the courtyard, having been dropped from a warplane months before. It was deactivated before it could detonate, but was impossible to pull from the ground. Carlos is befriended by two boys his age, Galvez (Adrian Lamana) and Owl (Javier Gonzalez-Sanchez), with whom he shares his toys and comic books. On his first night at the orphanage, Carlos is dared by Jaime to sneak to the kitchen for water after their pitcher spills in the dormitory. Carlos agrees, but dares Jaime to accompany him. As the boys cross the courtyard, Jaime whispers that he believes the bomb is still active, as he can hear its "heart" ticking within. The boys reach the kitchen, but Jaime sneaks back to the dormitory, leaving Carlos alone. Carlos hears a chilling whisper from an unknown source, which tells him eerily that "Many of you will die." Frightened, Carlos dashes outside, but is caught by Jacinto. At breakfast the next morning, Dr. Casares demands that Carlos give up any accomplices who snuck out with him the previous night. Carlos refuses to rat Jaime out, and takes full blame. Jaime begins to trust Carlos at last.

Jacinto has been at the orphanage since he was a boy, and harbors a passionate hatred for it. He works on the property along with his fiancee Conchita, but has an affair with Carmen. Jacinto knows of the stash of gold hidden at the orphanage, and uses his sexual relationship with Carmen as an opportunity to take her keys and search the building for the loot. The boys, meanwhile, tell Carlos of the ghost that they believe haunts the orphanage. A boy called Santi (Andreas Munoz), a recent resident and friend of Jaime's, had vanished on the night the bomb was dropped. Strange sighing noises are heard at night, and the boys believe it is the ghost of Santi. Carlos decides to locate the ghost himself. He sneaks out again that night, and encounters the ghost: a pale, delicate figure of a young boy with blood flowing upwards from a wound in his head. The ghost pursues Carlos back into the building, and a terrified Carlos spends the night hiding in the linen closet. Later on, after flipping through Jaime's sketchbook, Carlos finds a drawing of a ghostly figure labeled "Santi," leading him to suspect that Jaime knows more about the subject than the other boys.

Dr. Casares receives news that Ayala has been captured by the nationalists. Fearing Ayala will soon be tortured into revealing the gold’s location at the orphanage, he convinces Carmen that they must evacuate the children immediately. Jacinto overhears and confronts Carmen, demanding the stash of gold and crassly bringing up their sexual relationship in front of Dr. Cesares. Enraged, Casares turns a gun on Jacinto and forces him out of the building.

As the orphans and faculty prepare to leave, Conchita discovers Jacinto pouring gasoline around the kitchen, in which he had placed numerous other cans of fuel, and preparing to ignite it. Horrified, she threatens him with a gun, and shoots him in the arm when he mocks her. Furious, Jacinto throws his lit cigarette to the floor, starting a raging fire, and flees the building. Conchita alerts Carmen and Casares, who order the children out of the building before the many cans of gasoline in the kitchen explode. Carmen and fellow-teacher Alma attempt to stifle the blaze, but fail to prevent the devastating explosion. Alma is swallowed by the inferno, and many of the children are killed (just as the ghost had predicted). An injured Casares finds Carmen, mortally wounded, inside the wrecked building, and tearfully stays with her as she dies. He and the surviving boys, including Carlos, Jaime, Galvez, and Owl, remain in the charred orphanage, with Casares promising not to leave them. He sets up a chair by a front window and waits there with a shotgun for Jacinto's return.

The following night, Jaime finally tells Carlos the details of Santi's disappearance. Jaime and Santi had been collecting slugs at the cistern, when by chance they spied Jacinto attempting to open the safe where the gold was kept. Jaime ran and hid, but Jacinto cornered Santi and attempted to threaten him into keeping his mouth shut about what he had seen. In anger, Jacinto shoved Santi against a stone wall, resulting in the boy receiving a severe head injury and sending him into shock. Jacinto, panicking, tied stones to Santi with ropes before sinking the body in the cistern. A terrified Jaime emerged when the coast was clear and ran into the courtyard, only to have the bomb land several feet from him moments later.

Jaime explains that he is no longer scared of Jacinto, and will kill him if he ever returns. Conchita, having survived the explosion, is making the long walk to the nearest town for help when she meets Jacinto and his two cronies driving back to the orphanage to claim the gold. Jacinto threatens her with a knife, telling her to apologize for shooting him. Despite knowing the danger of angering him, she insults him, and he stabs her to death.

Carlos has one more encounter with Santi's ghost, and is no longer afraid after hearing the story of Santi's death. The ghost quietly demands that Carlos bring Jacinto to him. Carlos agrees.

Dr. Casares finally dies of his injuries while still sitting by the window with the gun. Jacinto and his associates reach the orphanage, and imprison the orphans in one room while they search for the gold. The two other men eventually grow impatient and leave, but Jacinto soon uncovers the stash- hidden in a secret compartment of Carmen's prosthetic leg. The orphans know that Jacinto will kill them once he finds the gold, but Jaime encourages them to fight back, as Jacinto is only one man. The boys fashion weapons from sharpened sticks and broken glass, and escape their room (with help from the ghost of Casares). They attack Jacinto in the cellar, stabbing him multiple times and pushing him into the cistern where he had deposited Santi's body. Jacinto attempts to escape the pool, but is weighted down by the gold bars tied to his belt. Santi's ghost then appears from the depths and drags Jacinto to his death.

As the remaining boys leave the orphanage and begin the long walk to town, Dr. Casares' ghost watches them from the doorway.


  • Fernando Tielve as Carlos, an orphan. He is described by del Toro in the DVD commentary as a force of innocence. Tielve had originally auditioned as an extra before del Toro decided to cast him as the lead. This was his film debut. Both Tielve and his co-star Iñigo Garcés had cameos as guerrilla soldiers in Pan's Labyrinth.
  • Íñigo Garcés as Jaime, the orphanage bully who later befriends Carlos.
  • Eduardo Noriega as Jacinto, the caretaker.
  • Marisa Paredes as Carmen, the administrator of the orphanage.
  • Federico Luppi as Dr. Casares, the orphanage doctor.
  • Junio Valverde as Santi, an orphan who becomes a ghost.
  • Irene Visedo as Conchita, Jacinto's fiancée.


It was independently produced by Agustín Almodóvar as an international co-production between Spain and Mexico, and was filmed in Madrid.[3]

Del Toro wrote the first draft before writing his debut film Cronos. This "very different" version was set in the Mexican Revolution and focused not on a child's ghost but a "Christ with three arms".[4] According to del Toro, and as drawn in his notebooks, there were many iterations of the story, some of which included antagonists who were a "doddering ... old man with a needle," a "desiccated" ghost with black eyes as a caretaker (instead of the living Jacinto who terrorizes the orphans), and "beings who are red from head to foot."[5]

As to motivation for the villain, according to the actor who portrayed him (Eduardo Noriega), Jacinto "suffered a lot when he was a child at this orphanage. Somebody probably treated him wickedly: this is his heritage. And then there is the brutalizing effect of the War." Noriega further notes that "What Guillermo did was to write a biography of Jacinto (which went into Jacinto's parents, what they did in life, and more) and gave it to me."[6]

DDT Studios in Barcelona created the final version of the crying ghost (victim and avenger) Santi, with his temple that resembled cracked, aged porcelain.[5]


The response was overwhelmingly positive, though it did not receive the critical success that Pan's Labyrinth would in 2006. The film currently holds a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 119 critic reviews, with an average score of 7.6 out of 10.[7] It also has a weighted average score of 78 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 30 critic reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[8]

Roger Ebert awarded the film 3 stars out of 4 and compared it favorably to The Others, another ghost story released later in the same year.[9] Christopher Varney, of Film Threat, claimed: "That 'The Devil's Backbone' makes any sense at all – with its many, swirling plotlines – seems like a little wonder." A.O. Scott, of The New York Times gave the film a positive review, and claimed that "The director, Guillermo del Toro, balances dread with tenderness, and refracts the terror and sadness of the time through the eyes of a young boy, who only half-understands what he is witnessing."[10] The film has been described as a humanist ghost story.[11]

Steve Biodrowski from Cinefantastique Online described the film as "rich in texture, characterization and themes. Besides being genuinely creepy, it is also surprisingly moving. It is, quite probably (and this is not a back-handed compliment) the saddest horror movie ever made." He also praised the performances as well as the special effects, which he declared as "some of the best ever seen, easily matching work from the best US facilities; in fact, in at least one way they are even better."[12][13]

The film was ranked at number 61 on Bravo's list 100 Scariest Movie Moments for its various scenes in which the ghost is seen.[14] Bloody Disgusting ranked the film at number 18 in their list Top 20 Horror Films of the Decade, with the article calling the film "elegant and deeply-felt... it’s alternately a gut-wrenching portrait of childhood in a time of war and a skin-crawling, evocative nightmare."[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Devil's Backbone - El Espinazo del Diablo (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 13 September 2001. Retrieved 11 September 2016.
  2. ^ "The Devil's Backbone (2001)". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
  3. ^ Kermode, Mark (30 July 2013). "The Devil's Backbone: The Past Is Never Dead . . ". The Current. The Criterion Collection. Archived from the original on 3 August 2013. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  4. ^ "Guillermo del Toro Q&A at Hero Complex Film Festival 2013". 12 May 2013. Retrieved 24 May 2013 – via YouTube.
  5. ^ a b del Toro, Guillermo (2013). Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions. Zicree, Marc Scott. (1st ed.). New York: Insight Editions / Harper Collins. pp. 102–103, 105. ISBN 978-0-06-208284-8. OCLC 857566627.
  6. ^ Olson, Danel; Baquero, Ivana; del Toro, Guillermo; Tielve, Fernando (2015). "Interview". Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth: Studies in the Horror Film (1st ed.). Lakewood, Colorado: Centipede Press. pp. 269–280. ISBN 978-1-61347-101-2. OCLC 923553438.
  7. ^ The Devil's Backbone at Rotten Tomatoes
  8. ^ The Devil's Backbone at Metacritic
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger (21 December 2001). "The Devil's Backbone". Archived from the original on 22 June 2013. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  10. ^ Scott, A.O. (21 November 2001). "FILM REVIEW; Dodging Bombs and Ghosts in Civil War Spain". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 27 May 2015. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  11. ^ Krake, Kate (13 November 2017). "Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone – A Humanist Ghost Story". Magic Books and Curious Nooks. Krakenfire Media. Archived from the original on 2 February 2021. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  12. ^ Biodrowski, Steve (30 December 2007). "Film Review: The Devil's Backbone". Cinefantastique Online. Archived from the original on 6 January 2008.
  13. ^ Biodrowski, Steve (2001). "The Devil's Backbone – Horror Film Review". Cinefantastique Online. Archived from the original on 2 February 2021. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  14. ^ "Greatest Scariest Movie Moments and Scenes: D-1". Filmsite. Archived from the original on 10 December 2005. Retrieved 2 February 2021.
  15. ^ "00's Retrospect: Bloody Disgusting's Top 20 Films of the Decade...Part 1". Bloody Disgusting. 15 December 2009. Archived from the original on 16 April 2012. Retrieved 3 January 2010.

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