The living will always be more dangerous than the dead.
Spanish title: El Espinazo del diablo
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras and David MuñozT
The Devil's Backbone is set in Spain at the end of the bloody civil war that tore the nation apart and left the Nazi-backed Nationalists, led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco, in charge for nearly forty years. Ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of a leader in the anti-fascist Republican Army, is left by his tutor at an isolated orphanage ran by the distant headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes) and the kindly Professor Casares (Federico Luppi), both of whom are supporters of the doomed Republican cause. Carlos believes that he is only to stay for a short time until his father returns from the war but the truth is that his father has died in battle and he is there to stay.
In the center of the orphanage courtyard, there is a huge unexploded bomb that was dropped during a recent bombing raid and left in place where it landed -- supposedly defused. Seeing a strange, pale face in the window of the kitchen, Carlos goes in to investigate but is distracted by two of the orphans, Galvez and Owl, who he makes friends with. He shows them his toys and comic books, but an older orphan, Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), steals one of the comics. Carlos starts to fight with Jaime but is distracted when he sees his tutor driving away without him.
Being left at the orphanage and facing the usual challenges of being the "new boy" would be bad enough but matters prove much worse for Carlos. The orphanage is not just isolated and impoverished but it is positively reeking of creepy, spooky atmosphere. Furthermore, the unexploded bomb, supposedly defused, is actually still ticking away. Then there is Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), formerly one of the resident orphans and now the caretaker, who bullies Carlos from their first encounter but reacts even more violently when he catches Carlos in the basement, which contains a deep well. And it is in that basement that Carlos encounters the orphanage's terrifying ghost.
That encounter results when Carlos sleep is disturbed by noises in the night. Finally whatever is making the noises knocks over a pitcher of water, awakening the rest of the orphans. They blame Carlos for knocking over the pitcher and thus depriving them of their night-time water supply. Carlos and Jaime (who has been pressured into going along) are dispatched to the kitchen to refill the pitcher. Distracted by more noises, Carlos wanders down a staircase to the basement. There he hears the voice of the ghost, who tells him cryptically that, "Many of you will die". Fleeing from the ghost, Carlos is caught by Jacinto. His refusal to reveal why he was out of the dormitory earns him Jaime's respect and the former enemies become friends.
The following night, a long, loud sigh is heard and one of the orphans says that it is the ghost. The orphans explain to Carlos that a boy named Santi (Junio Valverde) disappeared the night of the bombing raid. Ever since then, there had been a ghost haunting the orphanage. Jaime denies that there is any ghost and says that Santi merely ran away.
Another night, Carlos sneaks out to the courtyard. Approaching the unexploded bomb, he asks the bomb to show him the ghost. In response, a streamer caught on the bomb is carried off by the wind and leads Carlos to the ghost, a ghastly looking boy with a white face and a head wound that seems to emit a constant fine spray of blood. When the ghost touches him, Carlos is terrified and runs away. The ghost follows him into the main building, where Carlos locks himself in a closet and sleeps there for the night. The next day, Carlos finds a drawing of Santi in Jaime's sketchbook, confirming that Santi is the ghost.
Meanwhile we learn about the other characters. Jacinto who has lived at the orphanage since he was a small child hates his life there and will do anything to get away. He and his girlfriend Conchita (Irene Visedo), who works in the kitchen, plan to get married and leave. Jacinto knows that Carmen and Prof. Casares are holding a stash of gold for the Republican Army and hopes to steal it to finance a new life for Conchita and himself. Young Jaime also loves Carmen, who is very fond of him but not, of course, as a lover.
Carmen loves Prof. Casares, but is unwilling to acknowledge it. Dr Casares is impotent and his embarrassment over this makes him equally unwilling to admit his love of Carmen. Jacinto tries to take advantage of Carmen's sexual frustration by sleeping with her in order to steal the key to the safe where he thinks the gold is hidden. But he fails to acquire the right key.
In town to buy supplies, Prof. Casares witnesses the execution of Carlos' tutor and his bodyguard by soldiers of the fascist Nationalist Army. Carmen and the Professor fear that the men may have been tortured to obtain information about the gold or simply about the fact that the orphans are mostly children of anti-fascist fighters. Afraid that the orphanage may be attacked at any time by the Nationalists, they pack up the orphans and are about to flee. Jacinto demands that they give him the gold but is forced to leave the orphanage at gunpoint.
The orphans and their few possessions have been loaded on the orphanage's two vehicles and they are about to leave. Carmen goes to get the gold and discovers Jacinto preparing to blow up the safe. The resulting struggle ends with an explosion and fire that kills Carmen and many of the orphans, leaves others including Prof. Casares badly injured, destroys both vehicles, and burns down much of the orphanage. With no vehicle, escape for the remaining orphans seems impossible. Prof. Casares promises the boys that he will never leave them and, arming himself with a shotgun, takes up guard duty at a window overlooking the entrance, awaiting the return of Jacinto.
The following night, Jaime tells Carlos that he was there when Santi was killed. The two of them had been collecting slugs in the basement when Jacinto caught Santi. While Jaime remained hidden, Jacinto struck Santi on the head, severely injuring him. To conceal what he had done, Jacinto then drowned Santi in the pool in the basement.
On the second day after the explosion, Dr. Casares dies at his post. Meantime, Conchita decides that it is up to her to do something about the situation and attempts to walk to town for help. Jacinto, returning with two co-conspirators after the gold, meets Conchita on the road to town. When she refuses to apologise to him, Jacinto stabs and kills her.
Jacinto and his friends imprison the orphans and then begin searching for the gold. His friends soon grow impatient and leave him, but Jacinto continues to search. Eventually he finds the gold. The orphans, meanwhile, are able to escape their confinement when the ghost of Dr Casares unlocks the door of the room in which they are imprisoned. They fashion weapons from pointed sticks with shards of glass and lure Jacinto into the basement. There they stab him and push him into the same pool of water that Santi had drowned in. Weighed down by the gold, and then dragged down by the ghost of Santi, Jacinto also drowns.
Carlos and the few other surviving orphans leave, watched by the ghost of Dr. Casares. Only at this point do we learn that his voice was the narrator at the beginning of the movie. Thus, this has been a ghost story told by a ghost.