The Devil's Backbone ★★★★

Continuing my quest to find a new horror film worthy of addition to the fairly small list of my favourite creepy films, I went into The Devil's Backbone - a tale not without brutal violence and a vengeful spirit stalking about - with my expectations tampered. I knew this was a precursor to del Toro's masterpiece, Pan's Labyrinth but, as I was told, is also a film that isn't as slick, as grandiose, or as imaginative as Pan's. They neglected to tell me it also isn't really even a horror film.

This film exists somewhere in the shades of grey between surrealist fairytale and brutal realist historical drama – which, if existed on a shelf as a genre would also contain Tarsem's The Fall and perhaps a small handful of other films. What I admire most about the film is that it's a unique story that defies categorization, an attribute that allows the film to both stand alone as a completely original narrative and continually keep us as an audience wondering where the story will lead. In the end, it's an idiosyncratic parable about greed, revenge and the brutal nature of humanity.

Del Toro's vision for the film is expertly realized with beautiful production design and nuanced cinematography that captures the rural Spanish environment - and civil war period - perfectly. With brilliant performances of all of the actors, not the least of which are the young boys who are a perfect encapsulation of naive bravado, the story interweaves each and every character's past which come together in a brutal, unforgettable crescendo.

It's in the fanciful (and in this case CGI) elements that we begin to see the master craft of del Toro's conceptual abilities, demonstrating his control over the finer details that allow other-worldly entities to feel like they can and do exist in our own reality. His attention to detail in visually realizing the ghost of Santi, while also conveying him with nuance beyond the jump-and-scare ghoul he could be, is a foreshadowing of del Toro's abilities to develop well-sketched creatures that defy horror monster conventions. But it also exemplifies the amount of restraint he wields, a true understanding of the balance between haunting ideas and frightening moments.

The film is not without its problems, with some devices that never pan out and one character's return that is completely unnecessary - to the point of actually serving to weaken the core story being told. But these grievances are ultimately minor, and The Devil's Backbone is worthy of a home somewhere on my favourites list. If only I can figure out where to put it.