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Creature Features In Review : Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's 1Guillermo del Toro is a fascinating film-maker. Though he has ‘only’ directed ten films (not including two early shorts), the tenth of which, The Shape of Water is due out in 2017, his is a name held in regard amongst genre fans. Again, though many of his films have horror themes and imagery, only a clutch could be said to be out and out horror, yet again, he seems to be firmly embedded within the pantheon of horror film-makers (this may also be due to his continuing championing of the horror genre through production, nurturing of other film-makers, and his appreciation for the work of Lovecraft). Finally, he seems to move with relative ease between big studio-backed blockbusters (the Hellboy films, Pacific Rim), and more artistic, almost art-house films (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone). Arguably, it is with his few non-English language films that he has had his greatest artistic success; though he doesn’t seem to suffer from studio meddling in his larger films, they do tend to play safe, being large crowd pleasers to one extent or another, though always with his distinctive blend of direction and production values. With his more independent features, he seems to allow himself to follow creative freedom.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro could be said to have hit a career high. Its rather grim storyline follows young Ofelia who, with her heavily pregnant mother Carmen, heads into the woods of 1944 Spain to be with Carmen’s new husband, the rather severe Captain Vidal. Vidal is stationed at an old mill in the forest in order to hunt out a last group of republican rebels (the film being set a few years after the end of the Spanish Civil War). What follows are two strands of narrative; one concerning Ofelia as her increasingly vivid imagination conjures a world of fairies, forest spirits, and monsters which provide an escape of sorts from an unhappy life she feels lost in; and the other showing the ongoing efforts of Vidal as he copes with his task while also dealing with Carmen, whose pregnancy is anything but easy. The way in which del Toro weaves these two strands together is nothing short of magnificent, giving neither ascendancy over the other, and making connections and parallels between both at various points. It also works astonishingly well; fantasy and reality sit together naturally, smoothly, without jarring or feeling awkward, forced.

Pan's 4

Being a second watch of this film – having seen it a number of years ago not long after it first came out – I was astonished at just how bleak this picture is. Though I recall many of the darker moments – the stark violence of Vidal beating a suspected rebel to near death with a bottle, the creeping horror of an inhuman, child-eating creature with eyes in its palms – I had forgotten that a broad strand of almost nihilism runs through the film. It’s not even hidden; the character of Carmen makes mention of how tough adult life is when trying to turn Ofelia away from her obsession with what most of the other adults see as very childish pursuits. Yet Ofelia is a child, simply one who happens to live in a time when rather than shield her from the worst of humanity, the elders – for the most part – wish to educate her, prepare her for life’s harsh realities. It’s a very interesting aspect, more so because it doesn’t feel oppressive or overly grim. Yes there is horror, yes, there is very little humour or lightness, yet the fantastical elements of the film manage to stave off what could have been a difficult and brutal watch. Instead, there is just enough of the illusion of levity to keep the dark tone from appearing too much. It’s an amazing trick, and one must conclude it’s entirely deliberate. From the eerie and magical score, to the creature designs – reminiscent of the Jim Henson workshop in their Dark Crystal days – we are hoodwinked into thinking this is a pure fantasy. But like the original fairy tales, it promises no real happy endings.

The acting is subtle and immersive, and though even Vidal – for example – is little more than an unredeemable villain, the actor still manages to suggest levels of complexity hiding below the surface. He is a deeply loyal man to his cause, to his officers, to his new family; Pan's 5all except Ofelia, whom he is dismissive of, distant even. This – and her increasing sense of her mother being taken from her – propels her to take refuge in her fantasy stories, in her imaginings. Or are they? There are hints and suggestions – as ephemeral as the myths we meet – that this aspect of the movie might not be as fictional as suggested by the adults. Ultimately, though, it’s one of those films which allow the viewer to interpret and draw their own conclusions. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter. It is a deeply nuanced work, as different from del Toro’s other films as it is distinctively his.

And as for those creature effects and designs; they are nothing short of wonderful. The detail here is amazing, showcasing a deep love of creativity and a passion rarely seen in film. Though a few moments of CGI look obviously fake, they are few and fleeting.

It is the practical effects which shine, the costumes, the set design, the sculpture. Beautifully rendered and shot, bringing the world to life.

The film deals with themes of change, of upheaval and progress. It posits an existence which is brief, uncertain, and generally filled with pain. Yet even in this, there is always Pan's 3hope and light, however small and fragile. There is also loss, pain, and confusion, and a sense of melancholy running through the narrative. It’s an absolutely wonderful and compelling work which feels exactly perfect; everything is present, nothing need be added or removed, and it plays out with perfect pacing and rhythm

To my mind, this is del Toro’s best – at least until I see The Shape of Water – and that, considering the excellent body of work he has so far amassed, is high praise. This is a film for anyone who considers themselves a serious fan of dark fantasy, who appreciates complexity and nuance and allegory in their movie-going experiences. It is a fantastic achievement, and a great example of the art.

Feeney

Paul M. Feeney is a writer of horror and dark fiction, with leanings towards the pulpier side of things (described by him as ‘Twilight Zone-esque’). His short fiction has appeared in anthologies by the likes of Sirens Call Publications, April Moon Books, and Fossil Lake, amongst others, and has had two novellas published to date – The Last Bus through Crowded Quarantine Publications, and Kids through Dark Minds Press. He currently lives in the north east of England, where he writes a steady output of shorts stories and novellas, while trying to start his first novel. He has a number of short stories due out through 2017/18 in various publications, and intends to pen a number of works with a recurring character in the sub-genre of Occult Detective fiction. He also writes reviews for horror website, This is Horror, under the pseudonym of Paul Michaels.

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