Blu-ray review: “The Devil’s Backbone: The Criterion Collection”

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The new Criterion Collection edition of Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” is one of my favorite Blu-ray releases in a while, because it does exactly what you want a “special edition” to do. It takes a great film and opens it up for the viewer, letting you delve into its influences and its secrets. There’s a BD-ROM “Director’s Notebook” feature that allows the viewer to “page” through Del Toro’s notebook of sketches and outlines for the film, and that spirit, clearly overseen by an enthusiastic Del Toro himself, carries through to the entire project.

The film is one of Del Toro’s best, worlds away from the sturm and drang of this summer’s “Pacific Rim,” but just as concerned with the elemental struggle of good and evil. This time, though, the setting is a remote orphanage in 1938, during the Spanish Civil War. An unexploded bomb is embedded in the courtyard, but the children and caretakers have learned to ignore it and go about their business. A new boy, Carlos, comes to the orphanage, and starts peeling back the orphanage’s secrets, which include a sadistic caretaker and a ghostly boy, his head cracked like that of a porcelain doll, wandering at night.

“The Devil’s Backbone” is a ghost story, full of shudders and shocks. It’s also a horror film, but the horror doesn’t necessarily overlap with the supernatural elements. Instead, the horror comes in the cruelty committed by one person onto another (personified by the psychopathic, handsome caretaker), and the fear, especially from a child’s perspective, of living in a country being ripped apart by violence. There is a deep sadness underlying “Devil’s Backbone” — the loss of innocence, the folly of resistance, the pain of regret, the need for compassion. Del Toro says in one of the Blu-ray extras that the film is meant to “rhyme” thematically with his more famous “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which also mixed unearthly wonder with earthly cruelty.

The DVD includes a chatty and thoughtful commentary track from Del Toro, of course, but you can also enable a feature that allows you to see thumbnail sketches Del Toro drew of particiular shots and images while the film is playing. The supplements include extensive interviews with Del Toro and other cast and crew, as well as a very interesting interview with a Spanish Civil War historian that puts the action of “Backbone” into historical context.

I’m glad Del Toro gets the clearance to make big, fun movies like “Pacific Rim,” but I hope he always ping-pongs between blockbusters and more personal projects like “The Devil’s Backbone.” I can’t imagine another filmmaker making a movie like this, and the Criterion edition shows how that passion infused every frame of the film.

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