EL ESPINOZA DEL DIABLO (THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE) — *** — Inigo Garces, Federico Luppi, Eduardo Noriega, Marisa Paredes, Fernando Tielve, Irene Visedo, Junio Valverde; in Spanish, with English subtitles; rated R (violence, gore, profanity, vulgarity, sex, nude artwork); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.
With an increasing emphasis on cheaper scares in horror films these days (both in terms of cost and in how lame they are), it's becoming more and more rare during any 12-month period to discover a movie that is both scary and subtle — much less two of them.
First came last summer's sleeper hit "The Others," directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar, and just a few months later here's the suspense/horror film "El Espinoza del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone)," from like-minded Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.
Admittedly, this one isn't quite as effective, and it is a great deal more gory. But like "The Others," "The Devil's Backbone" relies on atmosphere and specific situations to generate tension, and it's smart enough to let that tension build slowly.
Also, like del Toro's 1993 debut film "Cronos," "The Devil's Backbone" is so peculiar at times that it may be off-putting to some (though it's nowhere as wild as that aforementioned science-fiction/horror movie, which reworked the whole vampire mythos).
This unique and creepy little tale is set during the Spanish Civil War in a rundown orphanage where young Jaime (Inigo Garces) finds himself. Since this newcomer isn't too thrilled at having been uprooted and placed in less-than-friendly surroundings, the sympathetic headmaster (Federico Luppi) tries to help him stay out of trouble.
Easier said than done, especially when the boy begins claiming he's seen "The One Who Sighs," a grisly specter that may be tied to a past tragedy at the orphanage.
And Jaime may have little time to figure out the mystery. Not only is the war beginning to encroach on the area, but the orphanage's greedy handyman (Eduardo Noriega) is convinced there's hidden treasure inside the orphanage's walls — and he's determined to find it.
As involving as many of the subplots are, the horror/mystery is the real hook here, and del Toro is at his most effective in a pair of spooky scenes (one in a deserted kitchen and another utilizing a closet). He's also got a first-rate cast of veteran actors, including Noriega (1997's "Open Your Eyes," the film that inspired "Vanilla Sky"), Luppi ("Men with Guns") and Marisa Paredes ("All About My Mother").
But the burden of the central performances rests most firmly on the younger cast members, and, fortunately, the expressive Garces is up to the task. (As good as he is, however, perhaps the film's most difficult role belongs to newcomer Junio Valverde, under heavy makeup as the unnerving spirit.)
"El Espinoza del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone)" is rated R for violence (explosive mayhem, executions and a stabbing), graphic gore, occasional use of profanity and crude sexual slang terms, simulated sex and glimpses of nude cartoons. Running time: 103 minutes.