I’m delighted to be back at the Robot’s Pajamas to share another favorite film of mine that gets pretty close to the horror genre. Like I shared last year, I trend toward the “magicky/ghosty/demon/exorcism/weirding side of horror.” I like horror that stays with you, makes you think, reminds you that there’s more out in the world (and in your own imagination) than you can see with your eyes, and that much of that unseen, unknowable stuff can also scare the shit out of you.
I also really like when horror embraces feminism – by which I mean strong, non-normative non-distressed-damsels (it gets real deep here). In the subversive chaos that can be and often is the horror narrative, women more and more regularly claim active agency. This trend is clear in movies like The Descent, Teeth, Dawn and Day of the Dead, In My Skin, The Brood, Let the Right One In, Ginger Snaps, The Orphanage, Cabin in the Woods, Babadook – I could go on but then I’d spoil my next 10 years of Horror Month posts.
These two elements lead me to one of my favorite movie makers, Guillermo del Toro. I am a del Toro champion and apologist so for this Horror Month entry, I am digging into an all time personal favorite (that has enough monsters and stabbing to qualify as kinda horror), Pan’s Labyrinth. Also good timing with his newest film Crimson Peak, hitting theaters this month.
I agree with everyone, basically, that Pan’s Labyrinth is del Toro’s best film – it’s gorgeous, complex, perfectly paced, innovative, unapologetic, magical, allegorical, and brimming with captivating characters. Although, shout out to Blade 2.
And as a fan of the feminist genre film, I regularly feel that del Toro just gets me. Pan’s Labyrinth combines strong female protagonists with the manifestation of my indoor-kid flights of fancy: what if you are so much more than you have been told that you are; what if you are in fact a mythical princess and it is only through your bravery and resilience that you can return to your kingdom and rightful place as a benevolent and respected leader of, um, fairies and fawns.
More than that, Pan’s Labyrinth is a period piece set in 1944 and guided by historical allegory, exploring the painful and complicated implications of the Spanish Civil War and the 35 years of fascist rule that followed the left-leaning Republican rebels’ defeat. I recommend reading the Wikipedia page about the War before rewatching Pan’s Labyrinth – it will make you feel real smart and savvy. But, as much as I could nerd out about the political metaphors that inform Pan’s Labyrinth, I won’t. Instead I’ll talk about monsters and stabbing!
In Pan’s Labyrinth, we follow the terrifying adventures of the young Ofelia, a plucky, bookish young girl who, along with her very pregnant mother, has gone to live with her new stepfather, a cruel, masochistic Captain Vidal who is busy routing rebels in the Spanish countryside.
From the very beginning, we are told that a princess of the underworld has long been away from her home. She has forgotten who she is but her father patiently waits for her return. As Pan’s Labyrinth goes on, it’s up to each of us in the audience if we choose to believe, along with Ofelia, that she is in fact the long lost princess.
I love that this film invites its viewers to suspend themselves between both concepts: yes, Ofelia is the princess, and yes, this idea is simply her fantasy to protect her from her scary new life and monster of a stepfather.
And from the beginning, we meet monsters, large and small. Insects metamorphosize into fairies and lead Ofelia to the Fawn – a towering, creaking ancient monster guardian of the conveniently neighboring labyrinth. And our monsters just keep getting weirder, more fascinating, more menacing, more impossible to avoid or destroy: a monstrous toad; the sinister, child devouring Pale Man; the trickster of a Fawn; and worst of all, the murderous, brutal Captain Vidal.
[It’s going to be spoilery from here on out – beware!]
As the fantastical monsters become increasingly deadly and horrifying (I mean, is there a better fantasy monster than the Pale Man?) so does Captain Vidal as his torture tactics to destroy the rebels begin to fail. This film is chock full of satisfyingly visceral and suspenseful scenes but I think my favorite is when his insurgent housekeeper Mercedes stabs the crap out of him and slices his face open, making his exterior betray his interior monstrosity.
Through it all, Ofelia perseveres, facing danger, torture, monsters, and ultimately, her own deadly mistakes. In the end, Pan’s Labyrinth is a heartbreaker, ultimately and painfully destroying Ofelia’s innocence and challenging all of the narrative’s magic – but del Toro leaves with us with just enough ambiguity to almost feel hopeful.
It is a complicated way to leave the audience; we can choose to live on with Ofelia in fantasy or to stay on earth and only see lingering hints of Ofelia’s kindness and bravery in the blossoming of a small flower on a withered branch.
Concluding by referencing magic and flowers may make it seem like Pan’s Labyrinth is actually probably not a horror film but that’s one of the things I love so much about the genre – horror is fluid, you can find it in nearly any kind of film. So no one gets to tell you (or me) that a movie isn’t true horror just because it’s a breathtakingly beautiful period piece where fairies occasionally buzz around. Because sometimes those fairies get their heads ripped off.
Katy Evans is the Founder and Co-Managing Editor of Post Defiance, about all things Tacoma, WA, as well as the Assistant Executive Director of the Grand Cinema. Last year, she reviewed Let the Right One In.