- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2002

The Europeans for some reason have a monopoly on this week's bloodcurdling attractions: "Brotherhood of the Wolf" from France and "The Devil's Backbone" from Spain. Both offer hunger as diabolical enticements, but the Spanish entry clearly is the more famished hound from hell. The director, Guillermo Del Toro, was invited to terrorize American audiences a few years ago. The result was "Mimic," a vampire thriller that substituted gigantic cockroaches for bats and required Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam to purge the New York City subway system, a dark and sheltering breeding ground. If only something as wholesome were at stake in "Backbone," a grisly serving of repulsion set in the most godforsaken orphanage in movie history.

A solitary structure in the middle of a desert, this refuge is called Santa Lucia. It may have been a monastic retreat at one time.

As the Spanish Civil War nears a conclusion in 1939, it shelters a handful of teachers, a couple of servants and about two dozen boys, evidently the children of Republican parents who have been killed or driven into exile.

Rumor has it that a treasure of gold bars remains hidden somewhere on the premises. Lust for gold animates a virile handyman named Jacinto, played by Eduardo Noriega, the matinee idol who originated the role in "Open Your Eyes," recently revamped for Tom Cruise in "Vanilla Sky."

The arrival of the last new boy, 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), seems to accelerate a last accounting at Santa Lucia, also haunted by the ghost of a murdered student named Santi (Junio Valverde, an apparition in pancake makeup, with blood sometimes streaming from a head wound).

On the same night the living Santi vanished, a bomb dropped from a plane and landed in the courtyard. This defused dud remains as a kind of "Leaning Bomb of Santa Lucia."

An opening set of motifs fails to sustain adequate mystification for Mr. Del Toro: images of the descending bomb, a gravely injured boy with a bloody head wound and intimations of drowning. The images are clarified during the movie's finale, but suspense has been drained from every element by then.

If anything, these teases sum up the movie's shortcomings: It's a dud, it makes your head hurt, and lingering underwater might feel much more rewarding than sticking with "The Devil's Backbone."

Jacinto is identified as a psycho snake in the grass: He used to be one of the student waifs at Santa Lucia but has soured into a young predator.

He causes such havoc as the responsible adults try to arrange a departure that survivors must unite for a last-ditch campaign of defense and vengeance.

It involves some anticipation of "The Lord of the Flies" from the boys, who sharpen sticks in order to play picador with the lethal but overconfident Jacinto.

In fact, so much of the brutality is so dependent on juveniles as victims or avengers that "Backbone" makes itself disreputable solely on the grounds of exploiting minors for dubious savagery.

Presumably, the civil war is being blamed for a systematic breakdown of civilized protections. However, the time frame always seems arbitrary. It might as well be 1439, 1639, 1839 or 2039.

I was amused by the name of one of the screenwriters: Antonio Trashorras. It seems an ideal alias for everyone in the movie industry determined to set his sights as low as possible.

1/2*.

TITLE: "The Devil's Backbone"

RATING: R (Sustained morbid atmosphere and episodes of graphic violence, with children as the objects of terror; occasional profanity and sexual candor, including an episode of simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Screenplay by Mr. Del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David Munoz. In Spanish with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

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