Sometimes horror has the ability to transcend its own genre and blur lines. The Devil’s Backbone did just that by combining horror with gothic tendencies. The question is whether or not this transition is accessible to typical horror fans. The film revolves around an orphanage in an abandoned part of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. The protagonist, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives to the site after his father is killed in the war. While befriending the school bully and others, Carlos begins to see a ghost at the orphanage, which results in the unraveling of a crime that took place before his arrival.
So what makes this film gothic horror? For one, there is a large amount of romance in the film. The relationships between the teachers at the orphanage are romantic at large and include tons of triangles and awkward situations. Not only that, but the teachers themselves, especially Casares (Federico Luppi) are passionate beings that remind us of an Edgar Allen Poe or Anne Rice character.
The key to a gothic horror, at least for horror island, is the balance between horror and romance. Was there enough horror in this film to make it worth watching for horror film buffs? The answer is yes and no. There are only a couple instances where the viewer genuinely feels a significant level of suspense, but the setting itself and overall atmosphere adds some spice to the pie. This film is much more about the sum rather than the parts and if a viewer wants a rollercoaster ride, then this isn’t really the movie for them.
One interesting aspect of this film is the reverse roles taken by the protagonists and antagonists. While this is technically a ghost film, the ghost himself is not necessarily the villain. While he is creepy and gives people a sense of unease, it is other characters that provide the violence in the film. What’s more romantic than the ghost being one of the protagonists?
With all this in mind, The Devil’s Backbone is worth watching for those who want to understand the pushes and pulls of the horror field. When horror seeps into a different genre, is it a sign of weakness or strength? With the case of gothic horror, I would argue that it is a strength, but there are other directions that horror moves (i.e. comedy) where the viewer wonders whether the creatures on horror island are migrating for good or just converting more creatures for the cause. The Devil’s Backbone is a sign of growth and for all those that appreciate a great mystery with horror and romance, than they will enjoy this film. If you are more into the cookie cutter horror film, then this movie is a bit too romantic and superfluous.
If you liked The Devil's Backbone, you might also like Ju-On: The Grudge and The Woman in Black.