Article first published as DVD Review: 'The Devil's Backbone' - The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.
If there’s any director working today that shows as much glee, no matter how big or small the project, it’s Guillermo del Toro. Whether it’s something as personal and intimate as Pan’s Labyrinth, as huge and entertaining as Pacific Rim, or a side project where he’s only a producer or writer (Mama, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark); there’s always a sense of excitement in del Toro’s voice. The best part is that it always shines through to the finished product, particularly even more so in his own films. And even though he keeps denouncing his first Hollywood film (Mimic), it still outdoes what most horror/sci-fi directors are trying to do these days.
Del Toro is a huge fan of things that go bump in the night and, as a director, he is the one who bumps back. After dealing with the horrific shoot that became Mimic (available on Blu-ray in a director’s cut), del Toro decided to take a break and make a film he was far more passionate about. What came next was The Devil’s Backbone, about a group of children in an orphanage, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. It wouldn’t be a del Toro film without some kind of ghost story involved, and so he gives us the tale of “the one who sighs” as the young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) who attempts to unravel what happened to poor Santi (Junio Valverde) who haunts the orphanage.
What would a Criterion release be without a brand new, restored 2K digital film transfer, supervised by Del Toro and director of photography Guillermo Navarro? While the Blu-ray still looks far better, the new DVD release looks better than the original Sony DVD from 2001. A special edition was also released in 2004, but this new Criterion transfer is the definitive presentation. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, grain almost takes on a life of its own, swirling all around, but never becomes overbearing. Contrast has been pumped up considerably, rebirthing the film’s original amber tones as noted by del Toro on the audio commentary. It also arrives with spine number 666.
If there’s one negative to the DVD versus the Blu-ray it’s that blacks are a little too dark, with crush creeping in even during daylight. And as should be expected on a DVD, banding pops up here and there. However, detail and resolution look far better upconverted here than the original 2001 disc. I never owned the special edition, but I’m sure all they did was add some special features while using the same transfer. I’m not surprised to see The Devil’s Backbone being granted a Criterion release, as del Toro’s first film — Cronos — was also granted new life via Criterion back in 2010. I would say I would hope to see what they could do for Pan’s Labyrinth if that wasn’t already a near perfect transfer and overloaded with special features.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track shows there’s still life in the antiquated format, although DVD doesn’t have the advantage of containing lossless audio. However, surrounds are used to full effect with wind swirling across every speaker of my 7.1 setup and LFE comes across organically, while directionality is pretty precise. Dialogue is crystal clear and we get new English subtitles translated by del Toro himself! While this may be a DVD release, Criterion has spared no expense between the video and audio. Almost all of the special features are on Disc Two — aside from a 2010 del Toro introduction, the audio commentary from the 2004 DVD release, and the film’s trailer. Disc One is all movie and it helps keep the quality in check.
The special features are pretty fantastic considering there aren’t that many. First up is a 13
“Spanish Gothic” runs 17 minutes and is a 2010 video interview with del Toro, directed by Soto again. Del Toro discusses how he wanted Devil’s Backbone to be even more like Pan’s Labyrinth and how the title was supposed to refer to a chain of mountains that they could never find to use in the film. Del Toro also tells us that there was going to be a backstory about how every 100 years there was a rival between God and the Devil for a child’s soul. There’s even more goodies as del Toro discusses his love for quasi-horror-Disney films and how even Walt Disney knew that a film is only as good as its villain. “Designing The Devil’s Backbone” is a 12-minute segment from the 2013 Criterion interview and here we learn about the bomb in the courtyard doubling as a fertility goddess and talks about how costuming is important based on what you see when characters are focused on in wide, medium, and close up shots.
“A War of Values” runs 14 minutes featuring Spanish Civil War scholar Sebastiaan Faber. Another Criterion interview where Faber discusses the political overtones del Toro infuses into the film to make it more than just another ghost story. “Director’s Notebook” is produced by Soto and is an interactive gallery featuring pages from del Toro’s notebook of pre-production drawings. By selecting on a few key drawings, you get taken to a video segment where del Toro discusses the drawing. “Sketch, Storyboard, Screen” offers side-by-side comparisons of a few scenes from the movie. There’s a Play All button or you can watch them individually and runs 12 minutes total. “Deleted Scenes” is four minutes of very short pieces that don’t add up to much and you’d never know they were gone if they weren’t included. Commentaries are available for each scene and they include: “Carlos and the Principal,” “Encounter in the Plaza,” “Carmen and Conchita,” and “I’m Coming with You.” There’s also an illustrated booklet with an essay from film critic Mark Kermode.
Criterion hit a grand slam back in 2010 with their release of Cronos and now they’re offering another heaping helping of fantastic with the U.S. Blu-ray debut of one of his best films. The Devil’s Backbone, along with Pan’s Labyrinth, are his two best films, and The Devil’s Backbone is now more complete and comprehensive than you could ever imagine. Even if you’re not a del Toro fanboy, the Criterion release of The Devil’s Backbone — whether on DVD or Blu-ray — is a must own.
Photos courtesy Sony Pictures Classics