First, the cranky, Cronenbergian Cronos. Then the under-rated Mimic. Now this. With the old masters either treading water (Wes Craven) or on a dithering hiatus (George A Romero), it's painfully obvious that the horror genre's in need of some new blood. Just three movies in, and Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro is already shaping up as a major player.
Fusing a ghost story with a murder mystery, The Devil's Backbone doesn't so much go for the throat as brush one hand down the hairs on the back of your neck and the fingers of the other along a knife-edge.
Admittedly, the spectral elements are traditional (like all good ghost stories, redemption through retribution is the motivating force), but Del Toro keeps things tense and, most importantly, keeps you guessing. Like the unexploded bomb in the courtyard, everything rustles and murmurs with portentous echoes of the past and its potential to inflict damage on the present.
The fact that the protagonists are children is an equally canny stroke: while their inquisitive nature justifies the primal, don't-open-the-door fright dynamics, it also secures an immediate emotional investment in the bum hand destiny has dealt to a herd of crushed innocents. And all of this in the doubly hostile environment of a cruel boys' dormitory penned in by a country at war.
Given the circumstances, you'd expect suffocation by doomy drama, but instead Del Toro has crafted a creepy, lyrical movie that surges between unspeakable brutality and heart-bruising sentiment. That it stirs as well as scares is down to some dazzling performances; the kids are absolutely terrific and Tielve's a prodigy to watch. Come the climax - kind of Lord Of The Flies by way of M R James - you'll be chilled and warmed. Intrigued? Then go see.