El espinazo del diablo (2001)
After the success of his Mexican debut Cronos, Guillermo del Toro was invited by Pedro Almodóvar to come and shoot his next film in Spain, with the Spanish film maestro taking on the role as independent producer. And the collaboration turned out to be immensely fruitful, as del Toro backdropped this combination of ghost story and stern poetic realism against the Spanish Civil War. The setting is an isolated orphanage, cut off from the world and the war, to which a young boy named Carlos is sent indefinitely until his father returns from participating in the war. The orphanage isn't your run-of-the-mill mismanaged 1930s institution; it is run by an ageing doctor and headmistress, two strict but fair and caring individuals. However, as shot by the visually astute del Toro, the surroundings are still filled with an aura of ominous finiteness and bland hope, and there is something not quite right with neither the severe caretaker Jacinto nor the disappearance of Santi, the boy who used to occupy Carlos' bed.
Del Toro's main achievement with El espinazo del diablo is how elegantly and effectively he combines a seemingly conventional ghost subplot with far more substantial and realistic drama. The combination elevates both approaches, and unlike most ghost stories, this one has a heartfelt conclusion in which we're able to sympathize with both the protagonists and the ostensible antagonist. The script is well-written, it has a true literary quality to it which other entries in this genre very rarely can boast. It also maintains suspense until the very end, not primarily because of clever twists and turns, but because of the sense of justice and intensity in the denouement.
In retrospect, it is easy to see the influence El espinazo del diablo has had on not only del Toro's thematic follow-up El laberinto del fauno (a more graphically violent and less focused film), but also on the del Toro-produced Spanish chiller El orfanato. With this film, del Toro proved that it is indeed possible to make a supernatural thriller which doesn't throws logic and realism out of the window. Keep an eye out for Argentine del Toro favourite Federico Luppi (the Hispanic version of Jason Robards) in a brilliant sympathetic performance as the doctor.