True story: I was visiting my family in eastern Pennsylvania for summer break once and I went to the video store with my mom. There was a woman in front of me in line, loudly complaining to the clerk. She wanted to rent Pan’s Labyrinth for her young sons but she wanted a version in English because “this is America.” The clerk explained that the movie is subtitled because it’s foreign and that it’s a really awful movie to show young children. I just saw the movie for the first time, last night, and I have to agree with the clerk. Pan’s Labyrinth may be about a child and may contain elements of fairy tales but that doesn’t mean it’s for children.
I have to say, my mind is blown every time I watch a movie by Guillermo del Toro. This movie is definitely going to become one of my favorite movies about childhood, along with Labyrinth. I had a let of doubt about whether I should even write about this movie, since it’s not an overt horror movie. I decided to since it does contain elements of dark fantasy and psychological horror.
The movie follows Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), in the summer of 1944, as she moves to the Spanish countryside with her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil.)
Carmen has married the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a Francoist fighting guerilla rebels in the countryside.
While following a stick insect that she thinks is a fairy, Ofelia discovers the entrance to a crumbling old labyrinth.
Ofelia is visited by the stick insect at night and the insect turns into a fairy. She follows the fairy to the labyrinth where she encounters a faun (Played by Doug Jones, who also played the Pale Man.) My advice is to never trust a faun or a centaur–they’re notorious sexual predators. That’s why it’s so shocking when Dolores Umbridge is carried away by them in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. J.K. Rowling studied the classics so this definitely isn’t a mistake, it means that Umbridge was up for some severe equine rape.
The faun reveals that Ofelia really is Princess Moanna, the princess from the fairy tale that opens the movie, and sets her three tasks that she must accomplish if she wants to be reunited with her real father. The tasks involve facing some incredibly creepy monsters.
The real-life action of the movie is interspersed with Ofelia’s trips to these fantasy worlds and you’re never quite sure if she’s really experiencing these places or if she’s just a girl desperate to escape a bad situation.
There are some common themes that I managed to pick out from the movie. First, I noticed that Ofelia is always wearing green. It’s as if Del Toro is trying to emphasize Ofelia’s connection with nature. In contrast, Captain Vidal is almost always in his blue-grey uniform. He suggests a character much less connected with anything alive. He’s more like a machine.
This happens way too much to be a coincidence. Filmmakers don’t just put things in their films for no reason.
The second thing I noticed was the use of insects as guides or catalysts. The scarab device is what sets Jesus Gris on his trip towards immortality in Cronos. In Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s the stick insects that become fairies that lead Ofelia to the labyrinth and act as her guides and try to protect her from the Pale Man.
The third thing I noticed was the use of clocks and time as a theme. The first time you meet the Captain, he’s commenting about how his wife and stepdaughter are fifteen minutes late. You see him fixing his pocketwatch in his workshop and constantly checking his watch. There’s also the story that an acquaintance of his hears about Captain Vidal’s father–that, when he died, his father smashed his watch so his son would know the exact time his father died a man. There’s also the fact that the windows in Ofelia’s bathroom are very unusual. Their placement resembles the cogs in a mechanical watch.
This is also similar to Cronos. Jesus Gris’ shop was was full of clocks.
Finally, I noticed how the antagonists in Ofelia’s quests resemble Captain Vidal. Her first quest involves feeding magic stones to a monstrous toad that has destroyed a fig tree. The tree used to be important to the whole forest, according to the faun, but the toad prevents anything from thriving. Nothing can survive so long as the toad exists, consuming everything.
The second task involves using the magic key that she retrieved from the toad to open the right door to a sacred knife. Ofelia has to pass a sumptuous feast but can’t eat any of it–shades of Persephone. The feast is for the Pale Man, who sits there, unseeing, with his eyeballs on plates. Seriously, how is this not horror? No one can be happy or full so long as the Pale Man is there.
My main question throughout the movie was, is Ofelia really Princess Moanna? I think that she is because the faun visits her when she’s locked in her bedroom and gives her chalk to make a door (How Beetlejuice.) The room is under guard so how can she escape if she doesn’t really draw a door? She has to enter Captain Vidal’s workshop to rescue her baby brother, another room that is locked. How can she get in without the chalk? Finally, Captain Vidal notices the chalk and picks it up, something he definitely couldn’t do if it were imagination chalk. This doesn’t mean it’s magic chalk but the chalk is definitely real, just like the cake is a lie.
This movie manages to deliver scares. It is seriously violent at moments, especially if they involve Captain Vidal. It’s not even violence you see directly, it’s violence as he lovingly explains what each of his torture implements are for. The faun himself is quite creepy in an ambiguously sexual kind of way. You know that while he’s of nature he’s still unnatural and you can’t help but to distrust him. The Pale Man is very much a thing of nightmares. His room has pictures of himself eating children and they look like illustrations from Der Struwwelpeter. They’re German morality stories for children about kids like “Struwwelpeter,” Shaggy Peter who never bathed and was thus shunned. Or the little boy who sucked his thumbs when his mother told him not to, so a roving tailor cuts off his thumbs. I’m pretty sure my grandma told me those stories.
Anyway, this movie ended up being a really good experiment for me in expanding the boundaries of what’s considered a scary movie. I really want to see more of Guillermo Del Toro’s movies now!
- Scarina--the authoress and editrix of this site. I like scary movies and have dedicated my free time to cataloging horror--the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes there are books too.
There's film criticism, literary criticism, and humor here. I can be highbrow but there's lots of pop culture too. And feminism.
I fervently love "Twin Peaks" and wish it were a real place so I could move there. I can't list my favorite scary movies because they change depending on my mood, the season, and how much coffee I've had.
I'm an artist looking for ways to blend creepy with cute. I try to channel my childhood nightmares, my love of horror, and my experiences with sleepy paralysis.
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