"The Devil's Backbone" is an earlier film by Oscar-winning "Pan's Labyrinth" directer Guillermo del Toro, and is said to be his most personal. The film is bleak and intense and keeps you interested throughout, as well as having strong performances from the cast. That said, it didn't really scare me, but I'm not easily scared.
Another strength is the development of the characters. Carlos seems initially to be a quiet, sensitive-slash-wimpy youngster, but he is soon revealed to have a big heart and a strong backbone.
Aspiring cartoonist Jaimie is a bully, but not a typical big stupid one, and his crush on groundskeeper's girlfriend Conchita (Irene Visedo) is actually kinda sweet.
Last but not least I'll mention Doctor Cesaras (Federico Luppi,) who is considered a meek intellectual but stands strong in the face of tragedy, coping with an unfaithful lover and his careful plans blowing up in his face. These characters don't always act in ways you expect them to, and their unpredictability is both refreshing and invigorating.
The villain is not immediately apparent, and may surprise you. The conclusion leaves the viewer breathless and waiting to see if good will triumph and justice will be served, or if we're hurdling towards another downer ending.
This is a horror movie in that we see the horrors of war, of keeping a secret, of seeing the best-laid plans go the waste. We get a truly innovative ghost in a truly innovative ghost story led by characters we care about. And isn't that a rarity in horror? Usually we're just counting the minutes til the bloodbath.
"The Devil's Backbone" is not a jump-out-of-your-seat, shit-your-pants jump-scare extravaganza, but it has its own subdued charms, as the tension mounts into a beautifully orchestrated finale where Karmic justice finally pays off. It isn't just another dumb horror movie. And that's worth celebrating.