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The Devil's Backbone

El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001, Spanish/Mexico

My initial plan was to tackle either Alejandro Amenábar’s Tesis (1996) or del Toro’s Cronos (1993), but I eventually decided to compare three films I had watched back-to-back one gripping night: The Devil’s Backbone, Amenábar’s The Others (2001) and Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007). Apart from the fact that all three are about children from the beyond, there are several connections between them: del Toro produced The Orphanage, while The Others was produced by Tom Cruise, who had recently featured in Vanilla Sky (2000), the American remake of Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes (1997). In the original, this role was played by Amenábar’s favourite man-you-love-to-hate: Eduardo Noriega.


At this point all my other finals caught up with me and I had to restrict myself to one film, but I would love to return to the original idea someday.


Among del Toro’s big influences are Hitchcock and Buñuel, “the two filmmakers I find most powerful, and they are both interested in cruelty, in the same obsessive, Catholic way. They are both very Catholic. They are both obsessed with sexual hunger, sexual power play, and sexual possession.” Backbone is particularly influenced by Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) and the Buñuel’s Tristana (1970), the latter specifically in the relationship between Casares and Carmen (as well as the wooden leg).


Carlos is the new “crio” or “raven” at the orphanage – this usage comes from the saying “Raise ravens and they’ll pluck out your eyes”, for which Carlos Saura’s film Cria cuervos (1976) is named. This film, set during the last days of Francoist Spain, forms a pair of bookends with Backbone; it is a major influence on both Backbone as well as The Others, revolving as it does around a child in a mansion who thinks it communicates with the dead.

Fun fact: at the time of writing, Backbone is the only del Toro film which stars neither Ron Perlman or Doug Jones. It might be sacrilegious to wonder if the film could have any better with either or both of them in it, but one can dream…

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