Guillermo del Toro made his directorial debut in 1993 with Cronos, an unusual rendering of the vampire myth, which garnered nine Mexican Academy Awards and a critic's prize at Cannes. Like many Latin American directors in the last decade, del Toro migrated to Hollywood, where he made the lukewarm sci-fi thriller Mimic. With The Devil's Backbone, the director returns to his Spanish heritage and offers an engrossing ghost story set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.

Ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) faces a dire dilemma: either die in Spain's war-torn countryside or starve in an impoverished school. Orphaned Carlos isn't left with much of choice when his tutor abandons him at the Santa Lucia School, where starvation turns out to be the least of his problems. The newcomer endures antagonism from the school bully Jaime (I˜igo Garcs) and braves the ghost of Santi (Junio Valverde), a former student who disappeared on the same night that a stray bomb inexplicably landed in the school courtyard without detonating.

The school's adults play out a more ominous drama. Professor C­ásares (Federico Luppi) raises money for the school by selling the rum in which he preserves his collection of human fetuses. He lusts after the one-legged principal Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the widow of a leftist poet, who funds Red resistance fighters with gold. Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the school's groundskeeper, resents having spent most of his life at Santa Lucia and is desperate to escape. Though he is engaged to the beautiful cook Conchita (Irene Visedo), Jacinto sleeps with the principal to get closer to her gold. The threatening situation of civil war eventually forces the teachers and students to flee the school, but when tensions between the adults escalate, the children are forced to fend for themselves.

Mixing horror and melodrama, The Devil's Backbone demonstrates del Toro's strength as a director. In one lengthy nighttime scene, the school's phantasm knocks over jugs of water in the boys' dormitory. The orphans force Carlos to sneak into the kitchen to refill the jugs, but the quick-witted outsider counters by daring Jaime to accompany him. As the two bitter rivals carry out their furtive mission, del Toro shrewdly takes the time to show them sharing the voyeuristic pleasure of peeking at Conchita. The two boys predictably become friends over the course of the film, but the progression is convincing. The scene climaxes with Carlos trapped in the kitchen, faced with either being caught by Jacinto or hiding where the ghastly little ghost dwells. Here, the director's controlled visual storytelling and juggling of multiple actions are on bold display. Skirting shock horror, the film refreshingly opts for building creepy atmosphere.

The Spanish Civil War has a crucial role in the film, but its physical presence is felt mostly offscreen. Del Toro instead uses the adult conflict to address the brutality of war. Rancorous and aggressive Jacinto fills the role of vindictive Nationalist, and Cásares and Carmen's leftist beliefs represent the Loyalists. When both ideologies collide, the children--as in del Toro's previous two films--become the innocent victims of the adults' reckless actions. They are discarded from one battle into another, and emerge as initiates of war's grim reality. These brave little ragamuffins are the heart of the film, blending the clubhouse comedy of The Little Rascals, the desperation of Los Olvidados, and the survival skills of the castaways from Lord of the Flies.

--Daniel Steinhart