But with The Devil's Backbone, del Toro is dealing with subject matter that is clearly very meaningful to him, taking on the Spanish Civil War and addressing the atrocious conditions sometimes found in the kind of all-male boarding schools the director experienced firsthand as a youngster. Set at one such school in the middle of a seemingly infinite plane, where an unexploded bomb is the centerpiece of the courtyard and the giant bloody crucifix on display has skinned knees for extra authenticity, The Devil's Backbone is half horror movie, half war drama, though never both at once. The film gets off track when its steers away from ghosts and into social statements, but the two threads ultimately connect in a satisfactory manner.
Our protagonist is Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a young war orphan dropped off at this desolate place in exchange for some of the gold that has been stockpiled by the one-legged headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Peredes), whose prosthetic limb resembles G.I. Joe by way of the Marquis de Sade. Among the other adults in residence are caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a grown orphan who resents the place but sticks around to nail both the comely cook Conchita (Irene Visedo) and Carmen, from whom he hopes to gain access to the gold, and the elderly Dr. Casares (Frederico Luppi), our narrator and father figure for all the boys.
Carlos has barely been at the school five minutes before he catches sight of what looks like a dead child staring at him from behind a darkened window. This asthmatic-sounding spirit is dubbed "the one who sighs" and is widely assumed to be Santi, a boy who disappeared the night the unexploded bomb fell. Chances are better than average that he's also the child shown drowning in brownish fluid (ghosts are "like insects trapped in amber," according to Casares) during the film's opening sequence.
In the world outside, the war is getting closer, and the school may have to be abandoned. One might think there'd be little time to deal with a phantom boy who breathes heavily and knocks over water jugs, but there he is nonetheless, intentions unknown, occasionally opening his mouth to proclaim, "Many of you will die." When finally revealed up close, he is certainly a sight to see: Del Toro has created one of the most visually distinctive ghosts ever to hit the big screen.
The sensitive art-house viewer should be warned: Though slow-moving at first, the film ends in explosions and violent death, with a level of sadism that will undoubtedly prove too intense for some viewers. That may be the point, as del Toro clearly feels that the Spanish Civil War was gratuitously violent, and boarding schools unflinchingly harsh, but he's none too delicate about making his intentions clear. And as Mimic proved, he has none of the usual Hollywood qualms about killing off children. But for those who can stomach this kind of thing, he's delivered a haunting work of art that will stay with you for some time.