As previously mentioned, I’ve never seen Pan’s Labyrinth. Having recently visited an exhibition of Guillermo del Toro’s art collection, I decided to change that. The movie came out when I was in middle school, and I remember flipping through Entertainment Weekly, reading what they had to say about it. I remember people talking about it too, maybe my classmates, though scanning my memory of the 50 other students in my 6th grade class, I’m not sure who would’ve sat through something with subtitles, no matter how gory the reward.
I use the word reward loosely. I really wasn’t prepared for the film. I wasn’t anticipating just how terrifying it would be. The vast majority of contemporary “scary” movies have a type of desensitizing horror. The gruesome details are outlined in such excess that we cease to find them distressing. Blood fountains, piles of guts, that creeping monster the audience identifies before the protagonist does: they’re all violent, they’re all horrific, but once you’ve watched enough to uncover the pattern, you revel in its repetition. It’s to a filmmaker’s credit when “horror” is actually horrifying, beyond set dressing and aesthetics. I’d seen plenty of screencaps of the Pale Man. Again, I was not prepared for how he moved, or just how distressing his sequence would be.
Terror and suspense are one thing. Intense, creeping dread is another art form altogether, and it’s where Pan’s Labyrinth shines. Such a deep sense of uncertainty penetrates every layer of the film, and it buries you deeper with each development. By the film’s end, everything is wrapped in chaos, you can only wait with baited breath to see what come next. And as always with del Toro, everything is visually stunning. Careful conceptual design ensures that the CGI fits right in alongside practical effects, and for a historical drama, the colors are vibrant.
Although it’s less evident in Pan’s Labyrinth than some of his other works, del Toro draws heavy inspiration from comics. The Hellboy films and their source material rest heavily on American comics’ tradition of Evil Fantasy Nazis, those cartoonish, larger than life, hyper-competent and superhuman fascists that dot our media landscape. Decades of those comics, as well as “Nazi super weapons” History channel specials and films like Star Wars, have done weird things to the collective American psyche. Fascist aesthetics are a marker of evil, but it’s a cool evil, and can be emulated without societal reproach. Fantasy fascism becomes a cover for people who want to support real-life fascism (just look at the majority of the Warhammer 40k fandom), and it creates supernatural antiheroes out of real life dictators.
The cloud of cultural confusion about what exactly fascism is breeds a space where (especially younger) people find themselves attracted to its ideology. I often wonder how many of the current “alt-right” mob are in their 20’s or younger, at that delicate age of self-formation when hate groups have their best chance of recruitment. As an example, in grade school, I remember receiving an essay prompt: “Should we be allowed to use the scientific data gathered by Nazi scientists at concentration camps?” I didn’t know what kind of data the question referred to. What I did have was common knowledge that fascist brutality bred super-scientists, whose technological prowess pushed into the realm of the occult. In reality, while Germany was a leader in scientific development, these forays into supernatural science weren’t the stuff of science fiction, so much as irrational floundering in the direction of some supposed “superweapon” that would win them the war. Pseudoscientific wastes of resources were much more common than any sort of useful creation. For one, the official policy of the Third Reich was that everything in the universe was made of ice. Germany lagged behind in almost everything but rocketry.
It’s to del Toro’s credit that fascism, and the evil Captain Vidal, are the most visceral and terrifying threats in the whole movie. Pan’s Labyrinth draws much of its terror from the real historical context of fascism, blending his own personal experience with actual events. And no matter how horrifying the film’s fantasy elements are, they’re allegorical to the larger drama of the film. Brutal glimpses of violence pepper the film, and raise the viewer’s suspense as violence is threatened later on. But Pan’s Labyrinth restrains itself. It never loses its respect, it never succumbs to that desensitizing excess. The most frightening sequences in the film are those where Vidal threatens resistance members (or those he believes to be with the resistance). Those moments set us up for the film’s final confrontation, they escalate our fear for Ofelia. Violence remains a real threat, and real horror, and fascism is central to it.
Impossible to categorize, masterfully woven, and beautifully, terribly executed, this movie isn’t one that will be leaving me soon. I suppose 11 years after the fact is a little late to leave a rating, and I don’t think I could rate it anyway. What I can say is that Pan’s Labyrinth left me with a lot to chew on. For me at least, it’s a stunning masterwork.
As a bonus, here’s some snapshots of del Toro’s digitized sketchbooks, which were also on display at the exhibition!