The Devil's Backbone

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1939, Spain.

It is the Spanish Civil War. Casares and Carmen operate a small orphanage in a remote part of Spain, along with the groundskeeper Jacinto and a teacher, Conchita. Casares and Carmen keep a large cache of gold to help support the treasury of the Republican loyalists, making this remote site a frequent target of Franco's troops; an unexploded bomb waits to be defused in the orphanage's courtyard.

When a small boy named Carlos arrives there, he believes that he is only staying until his father returns from the war, unaware that his father is already dead, and he is to stay at the orphanage indefinitely. However, Carlos is about to learn that more than the living dwell here, as he starts seeing an apparition he cannot explain, and hears tales of a boy named Santi who disappeared the day the bomb showed up.

The Devil's Backbone (Spanish title: El espinazo del diablo) is a 2001 Mexican/Spanish Horror Film written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. It stars Fernando Tielve, Íñigo Garcés, and Eduardo Noriega. del Toro has stated on the DVD that, along with Hellboy, this was his most personal project.

Tropes used in The Devil's Backbone include:
  • Black Eyes of Crazy/Creepy Child/Looks Like Cesare/Undead Child: Santi.
  • Boarding School of Horrors
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with the dead Cesare's musing on the nature of ghosts.
  • Chekhov's Lecture: Who knew that learning how prehistoric hunters took down larger prey would come in handy later?
  • Children Are Innocent: Deconstructed. While the orphans like most of the things children like, they are a complex bunch, and ultimately prove quite capable of taking down Jacinto.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Santi.
  • Death by Irony: After being thrown into the pool beneath the orphanage and dragged down by Santi, Jacinto is weighted down by the bars of gold in his pockets -- the treasure he's spent years searching for.
  • Downer Ending: The teachers are dead, and the children have no choice but to venture out into the desert for help -- where they'll most likely die as well, forgotten by all.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: One class of children with spears vs. one adult bad guy.
  • Genre Savvy: Unlike characters in most Hollywood ghost stories, it actually occurs to Carlos to simply ask the ghost what it is he wants. He wants Jacinto.
  • Ghostly Goals: Santi just wants his murder uncovered.
  • Hard Head: Averted.
  • Hot for Student: The primary villain has been having an affair with his principal since he was barely a teenager.
  • I'm Cold... So Cold...: Principal Carmen.
  • Orphanage of Fear
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Santi is caught in an existential loop until he can avenge his death.
    • According to Word of God on the (American release) DVD commentary, he is still in an existential loop after the end of the film. Also, the opening narration poses the question, what is a ghost? and one of the following lines suggests an insect trapped in amber. So presumably, all ghosts exist in that way.
  • People Jars: Pickled fetuses with the titular deformity[1].
  • Precocious Crush: One of the students has a wholesome crush on his teacher, but the villain had a less-than-wholesome crush on his own teacher when he was a student.
  • Saving the Orphanage
  • Undeath Always Ends: Averted.
  1. The condition is actually called spina bifida. It wasn't properly understood in the medical world until the mid- to late '30s. Despite it having a real, physical cause, in small Spanish towns it was still considered a sign from God that the children were not meant to live or that their parents had some grave sin on their souls. Hence the name, devil's backbone.