It is 1939, the end of three years of bloody civil war in Spain, and General Franco's right-wing Nationalists are poised to defeat the left-wing Republican forces. A ten-year-old boy named Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of a fallen Republican war hero, is left by his tutor in an orphanage in the middle of nowhere. The orphanage is run by a curt but considerate headmistress named Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and a kindly Professor Casares, both of whom are sympathetic to the doomed Republican cause. Despite their concern for him, and his gradual triumph over the usual schoolhouse bully, Carlos never feels completely comfortable in his new environment. First of all, there was that initial encounter with the orphanage's nasty caretaker, Jacinto, who reacts even more violently when anyone is caught looking around a particular storage room the one with the deep well. Second, and more inexplicable, is the presence of a ghost, one of the former occupants of the orphanage named Santi. Not long after Carlos' arrival, Santi latches onto Carlos, badgering him incessantly at night and gloomily intoning, "Many of you will die." As if that wasn't enough to keep the orphanage's occupants in an unrelenting state of terror, there's the un-exploded bomb that dominates the orphanage's courtyard, still ticking away; With the orphanage left defenseless by its isolation, and the swift progression of Franco's troops, the ghost's prediction seems depressingly accurate. Nevertheless, with every step of the plot, it becomes apparent that the ghost's predictions as to who (or what) will die, the real source of danger and even the definition of death itself may be more ambiguous than first thought.
José Manuel Lorenzo....Marcelo
Francisco Maestre....El Puerco (as Paco Maestre)
"Set in 1939 at the end of the Spanish War and filmed in the midst of nowhere, but is in fact to the east of Madrid on the borders with the province of Guadalajara, this film dumps us not so ceremoniously in a large dilapidated and eerie house which serves as an orphanage. Carlos - Fernando Tielve (El Embrujo de Shanghai, qv) - is abandoned along with 30 other boys in the care of Marisa Paredes (El Coronel no tiene quién le escriba) (qv) in an anxious and earnest role, and with only one leg, poor thing, and Federico Luppi (Martin (Hache)) (qv), as well as Eduardo Noriega scheming up other ideas. The house itself is a major part of the film's development and at times had me remembering Mervyn Peake's incredible masterpiece `Gormenghast'.
The Mexican director Guillermo del Toro certainly worked hard to get this one up and going, and got together a good cast who also pulled hard to make it work. The Almodóvar Brothers' production was enhanced by intelligent cinematography by Guillermo Navarro which heightened suspense in the gloomy bowels of the house, and Javier Navarrete's music toned in well most of the time. For some reason or other the combination of on-scene background noise and the music frequently overwhelmed the spoken dialogues. Better sound-balance would definitely be called for. Apart from that `El Espinazo del Diablo' is a suspenseful drama, not really horror in the ordinary sense, which skillfully interplays different levels and layers into the story, such that the obvious and overt become fused into a taut psychological play on nerves.
I cannot help comparing a little with Alejandro Amenábar's `The Others' (qv); though entirely different in story-line, the comparison is because both films are made in darkened spooky old houses; del Toro's use of the house as protagonist in the film surprisingly comes off slightly better than Amenabar's.
If you are interested in films of this genre from Spain try `99.9' (1997) (qv)."
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