Thursday, August 3, 2017

THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (2001) (Umbrella Entertainment Blu-ray Review)


Label: Umbrella Entertainment

Region: Region-FREE
Rating: MA 15+
Duration: 108 Minutes 
Audio: Spanish DTS-HD MA Surround 5.1 with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Eduardo Noriega, Federico Luppi, Marisa Paredes, Fernando Tielve, Irene Visedo, Junio Valverde, Íñigo Garcés

Set in 1939 in Spain during the final days of the Spanish Civil War, a ten-year old boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is brought to a rural orphanage after his freedom-fighting father is killed, the orphanage is run by headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), both sympathizers for the freedom-fighting Republican cause. They are assisted by a groundskeeper named Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) and his girlfriend Conchita (Irene Visedo) who is a teacher. 
One of the first sights to really grab your attention about this orphanage is an enormous bomb sticking out of the center of the courtyard, it's quite a sight, it having fallen from the sky one night, but it did not detonate, it has since been diffused, but the ominous bomb remains. The same night the bomb fell a young boy named Santi (Junio Valverde) disappeared from the orphanage, and his ghost is said to haunt the orphanage, known as "he who sighs", a tale that intrigues new arrival Carlos.

Carlos is at first bullied by an older boy named Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) who pesters him, stealing his prized comics, and making his life at the orphanage a Hell, but after Carlos saves his life the two become fast friends. As the story unfolds Carlos becomes more obsessed with the mystery of what happened to Santi and his apparent haunting of the orphanage, though he only seems to appear to Carlos. The ghost is quite a chilling vision with porcelain white skin, his skull cracked like porcelain with a plume of blood rising from his head and floating into the sky. His skin is almost translucent at times, in the moonlight you can see his skeletal frame show through the seemingly paper thin skin, there are a lot of nice touches about the design of the ghost, including oxidation on his face from tears streaming down his face. Santi's ghost threatens young Carlos that "many of you will die", which proves to be less a threat and more of a cryptic warning, and one that ominously comes to be. 

The movie is visually impressive, the orphanage has some unique architecture that makes for a compelling watch just on a visual level with strange, underground areas that prove vital to the story, the film is well lit and shot with some nice color coding, a trademark of del Toro's, something he cribbed from Italian Gothic master Mario Bava (A Bay of Blood). 

Also adding to the depth of the film are some truly wonderful performances from the entire cast, young Fernando Tielve has a depth beyond his years, while Federico Luppi and Carmen Marisa Paredes as the older duo running the school are nuanced with a lot of depth, she with her own lustful secrets, and he with a longing for the other that has gone on for years unrecognized, he's also battling impotence which perhaps prevents him from making his love known. Then there's the groundskeeper Jacinto, a mean-spirited man with his eye on some gold bars that Carmen has hidden away, money that was once to back the now fading Republican cause. Jacinto plays large into the tragic finale of the movie, his greed proving to be the undoing for nearly everyone at the orphanage, he is the nastiest character in the movie. 

At it's heart of the movie is an exquisite ghost story taking place at an orphanage, the Spanish Civil War makes for an intriguing backdrop to the story, and though I'm not all that well-versed in Spanish history I loved it, I understood the motivations and desperation of the characters, and the tragedy that unfolds the two storylines marry together very nicely, with the war-time drama and the supernatural happening both coming to a satisfying though tragic end. 

Audio/Video: The Devil's Backbone (2001) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from Australia's Umbrella Entertainment in 1080-p HD widescreen (1.85:1), the image is wonderful, crisp and clean, the grain is nicely managed, colors are vibrant when meant to be and nicely saturated and there's a pleasing depth and clarity to the image, this is a very filmic in appearance. There's only one audio option, a Spanish language DTS-HD MA Surround 5.1 presentation that is nicely balanced with some nice creepy use of the surrounds, that give this ghost story some serious presence when watching it with a surround system. Optional English subtitles are provided. 

Onto the extras we get all the original Sony DVD extras, but not the Criterion-created extras from their 2013 release, so you're getting the original audio commentary (not the solo Guillermo commentary from the Criterion disc) with director Guillermo del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, two Spanish language featurettes, deleted scenes, the original theatrical trailer,  the director's notebook, the Spanish Gothic featurette, and extensive storyboard comparisons displaying Guillermo del Toro's original thumbnail sketches, Carlos Gimenez's production storyboards and the finished scenes.  

The disc arrives in the standard Umbrella Entertainment Blu-ray keepcase, an oversized blue case with a sleeve of artwork, a new illustration from Simon Paul Sherry Illustration and Design, which is akin to the Mike Mignola artwork from the Criterion release, it's good stuff. The sleeve is reversible but only features the same illustration without the "from the visionary director of..." text and without the MA 15+ rating obscuring the cover art, which is cool, I'm region-free but sometimes that clumsily oversized rating box from overseas labels can be an eyesore. Something I quite liked is that Umbrella go with the original movie font for the logo on the cover and spine, something Criterion did not do.  

Special Features: 
- Audio Commentary by director Guillermo del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro 
- Que  Es Un Fantasma: The Making of Devil's Backbone (27 min) 
- Storyboard Comparisons (102 min)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (2 min) HD 
- Prologue with Guillermo del Toro (1 min) 
- Behind the Scenes: Spanish Gothic Featurette (18 min) 
- Director’s Notebook (9 min) 
- Spanish Featurette (13 min) 

The Devil's Backbone (2001) is still my favorite of all del Toro's movies, an atmospheric masterpiece of a ghost story set in an orphanage, with the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop. It's a terrific film and the new Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment gives us a wonderful A/V presentation with some excellent extras well-worth digging into.