After Cronos and Mimic, Guillermo del Toro is developing a reputation as the go-to guy for atmospheric horror, and The Devil's Backbone, his latest film, isn't likely to change anybody's opinion. But the atmosphere itself has changed. Set at a boarding school/orphanage toward the end of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil's Backbone looks like one of those spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone. The sky is so cloudlessly blue, the air so dry, that you can't believe how long the shadows are. And del Toro allows the sun to bake the dusty Spanish plains to a warm shade of gold. Ghost stories aren't supposed to take place during the day, and even this one saves its gotcha moments for the wee hours of the night, when the moon casts its sickly pall. But del Toro isn't into cobwebs and gravestones. He's into Goya and VelÃsquez.
Not that he doesn't appreciate the macabre. And so the headmistress (Marisa Paredes) of the Santa LucÃa School, which harbors the orphaned children of Republican Loyalists, happens to have an artificial leg. And Dr. CÃsares (Federico Luppi), her elderly suitor, likes to take rejuvenating sips from a jar of spiced rum that's used to store the body of a stillborn baby. Del Toro treats these gothic tidbits as if they were the most natural things in the world. And he's pretty matter-of-fact about "the one who sighs," too. That would be Santi, a boy who met an untimely end when he caught Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the school's handsome ne'er-do-well of a caretaker, trying to crack a safe. Like so many ghosts, Santi wants revenge. And he may get some assistance from Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the new kid, who's got his hands full dealing with the old kids. Luckily for Santi, Carlos sees dead people.
Those who expect ghosts to sneak up behind us and shout "Boo!" may be disappointed with The Devil's Backbone; for a scary movie, it's not very scary. But neither was, say, The Others, which bears a striking resemblance to del Toro's horror show, including a Latin director steeped in Catholic guilt. "Sometimes, I think we are the ghosts," the headmistress says at one point, a line that might well have come from the lips of Nicole Kidman in The Others. And you start to see the Santa LucÃa School as a stand-in for the Loyalist cause ' doomed, yet determined to fight the good fight. The movie overreaches by plopping an unexploded Nationalist bomb down in the middle of the school's courtyard; the symbol crash can be heard for miles. But there's something wonderfully creepy about seeing ghosts as "an emotion suspended in time," and history as a haunted house. The Devil's Backbone is del Toro's Homage to Catalonia.