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The Devil’s Backbone (4K UHD Blu-ray Review)

In the 1990s, independent films were on the rise and studios like Miramax were at the forefront of distribution. Many studios created a separate wing to focus on and gather the independent, documentary, art house and international films under a single banner away from the blockbusters and bigger star studded fare. Sony Pictures developed Sony Pictures Classics for this very reason in 1992. And for the 30th Anniversary of the studio’s formation, they will be putting out a 4K Ultra-HD box set with 11 films from the course of their history, including 10 that are making their debut on the format. This review cover’s Guillermo del Toro’s 2001 masterpiece, The Devil’s Backbone. You can order yourself a copy of this impressive box set, which would make a fantastic gift for that special cinephile in your life, using the paid Amazon Associates link below.

Film

Originally posted on 6/30/2013 as a part of the Naptown Nerd Guillermo del Toro Retrospective

After losing his father, 10-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at the Santa Lucia School, which shelters orphans of the Republican militia and politicians, and is taken in by the steely headmistress, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), and the kindly professor, Casares (Federico Luppi). Soon after his arrival, Carlos has a run-in with the violent caretaker, Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega). Gradually, Carlos uncovers the secrets of the school, including the youthful ghost that wanders the grounds.

After an enormously crushing experience with Mimic, Guillermo del Toro returns to Mexico to make what he considers one of his most personal projects, The Devil’s Backbone.  He had thought his days as a big Hollywood director, and his chance to put his fingerprints on it, were likely over.  Not that the opportunities weren’t present, but that he himself was not willing to put all the weight of dealing with a big studio production and dealing with the suits on his shoulders again.  Strangely enough, going back to Mexico would gain him more notoriety as a young and upcoming visionary master.  The door to Hollywood would instantly open back up after this film became incredibly acclaimed by those viewing it in 2001

The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story set on the backdrop of an all boys orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. And quite frankly, in this author’s eyes, is one of the best ghost stories ever put on film.  del Toro manages to bring heart and soul to such a dark gothic tale.  He also manages to scare the piss out of you.  The ghost in the film is inspired by that of the Japanese horror films of the time.  This, mind you, coming before the explosion of them into popularity following the highly successful remake of The Ring.  But the film is more than just boos, scares and creepy.  The ghost tale is only a means to serve a higher purpose and to give justice and closure to the details behind the haunting.  The horror comes secondary to a much more important story that this film is actually telling.

del Toro has claimed this, along with Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army to be among his very favorite of his works.  This definitely is a passionate piece and I think has somewhat been overlooks, forgotten or never seen by a general movie going audience.  Us film geeks hold it high and will always talk about it, but its a film that most should see.  Not only is it scary, but its a damn good film as well.  Its almost a companion piece to Pan’s Labyrinth.  The feel of the same ilk  If del Toro is crafting together a series of fairy tales for a big anthology, those two are definitely the corner stones.  Personally, I’d throw Cronos in for good measure.  Guillermo has referred to them (Backbone & Pan’s) appropriately as “brother & sister” and that definitely makes sense in more ways than one.  One film deals with the boys’ side of things in the supernatural realm and the others a young girl.  Its not all quite that literal, but that is there.

Video

Disclaimer: Screen captures used in the review from the standard Criterion Collection Blu-ray, not the 4K UHD Blu-ray disc.

Encoding: HEVC / H.265

Resolution: 4K (2160p)

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Layers: BD-100

Clarity/Detail The Devil’s Backbone drops on 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray here for the first time with a rather gorgeous looking new transfer that takes the wonderful Criterion release to another level. I have one small beef keeping this from a perfect score (see the “Black Levels” section), but aside from that its a beautiful. There’s a nice desert golden aesthetic to it  and the depth and crisp nature of the frame looks better than ever.

Depth: Depth of field is quite strong and the film looks quite huge and spacious with loads of good pushback on the interiors especially in the cellar sequences. Movements are filmic and smooth with no issues arising from any sort of rapid motion causing blur or jitter.

Black Levels: Black levels are deep and natural here, one of the biggest areas that see a step up. Shadows are gorgeous, darkened and night scenes are quite lovely with plenty of visibility. My one gripe with this whole release is that on two of the fade outs, one at the beginning after the bomb drops and the second later toward the end of the film, the screen goes entirely black, except for the top left quarter of the screen is a lighter gray. I’m not sure if its my monitor or what, but this doesn’t happen on the next film in this set, Volver, which features many a similar fade out.

Color Reproduction: Colors have a more brown/gold aesthetic and is well saturated. There’s a nice blue filter with the ghost that has a spooky pale appearance. Reds pop with a nice dress on display to showcase that. Fire roars and has a nice glow to it thanks to the HDR being utilized.

Flesh Tones: Skin tones are natural and consistent from start to finish of the film. Sweat beats, bruising, cuts, dried dirt, pores, wrinkles, stubble and more come through clear as day.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.

Audio

Audio Format(s): Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English, English SDH

Dynamics: The Devil’s Backbone carries over its 5.1 track that is insanely efficient and rather all you need to get this picture going to the highest degree of effectiveness. This is a well balanced mix that has great volume adjustments throughout and and an excellent balance of vocals, music and sound effects. There’s expert levels of depth and layering on display.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension:  The subwoofer hits pretty good with gunfire, punches, crashes, fire roaring and explosions.

Surround Sound Presentation:  This is a pretty airy track with excellent ambiance and nice, small unique contributions from the rear channels. Sound travel is accurate and impacting as it jumps around the room or the scene changes an angle.

Dialogue Reproduction:  Vocals are clear and crisp.

Extras

The Devil’s Backbone 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray comes only as a part of the Sony Pictures Classics: 30th Anniversary Collection.

Audio Commentary

  • with Director Guillermo del Toro
  • with Director Guillermo del Toro and Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro

Original EPK Featurette (HD, 12:56)

“Que Es Un Fantasma?”: The Making Of The Devil’s Backbone (HD, 27:18)

Summoning Spirits (HD, 13:47)

Director’s Thumbnail Track

Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary (HD, 3:41)

Sketch, Storyboard, Screen: Multi-Angle (HD, 12:07)

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:05)

Summary

The Devil’s Backbone is one of Guillermo del Toro’s finest features in a filmography of mostly finest features. It arrives on 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray for the first time with nothing other than the best of presentations. It carries over mostly everything seen on the previous standard Blu-ray Criterion release for a nicely loaded, information disc. Currently, this 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray is only part of the Sony Pictures Classics: 30th Anniversary Collection and is one of the crown jewels of the set.

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Brandon is the host, producer, writer and editor of The Brandon Peters Show (thebrandonpetersshow.com) on the Creative Zombie Studios Network. At Why So Blu he is a Writer/Reviewer. Brandon is a lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash. You can also find older essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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