Is Pan’s Labyrinth a horror movie?
It’s a good question. I‘ve seen it described as a dark fantasy, a war movie, drama, a straight-up fantasy, all sorts. It probably doesn’t sit under the traditional horror banner; however it is bloody scary and contains some of the most disturbing and impressive creatures I’ve ever seen on film. Also, I think it’s a horror movie so stop questioning me.
Guillermo Del Toro’s grim fairy tale
Guillermo Del Toro already had seven films under his belt as a director when Pan’s Labyrinth came out in 2006 and his interest in creature features had been firmly established at this point.
This is a director who has stamped his style firmly in the minds of his audience. From clockwork imagery to ambient lighting and his wonderfully designed, often arachnid influenced monsters. Not to mention his close relationship with the fairy tale, influenced by the Brothers Grimm and many other European folk stories. We all know how very black fairy tales can be in their true form and Pan’s Labyrinth is no exception. One of the reasons I find it so scary is that it connects you wholly to the fears you had as a child… of the monsters and the dark.
Our protagonist is Ophelia, a bookish young girl travelling to an old mill in the middle of a forest with her mother, who is suffering with her pregnancy. It’s not long into the film before we start to explore Ophelia’s vivid imagination as she tells her unborn brother a macabre bedtime story about a rose that gives eternal life but is surrounded by deadly poisonous thorns.
The tale is set shortly after the Spanish civil war with the rebels still fighting back while the army tries to contain them. Here we find our second set of characters: Mercedes the housekeeper (also a rebel sympathiser) and her brother and the rest of the rebels continuing to fight the war. We are also introduced to Ophelia’s new stepfather, the reprehensible (by this I mean fucking terrifying) Captain Vidal.
Vidal’s introduction is a cold and unsettling greeting to Ophelia and her Mother, followed minutes later by him stoving-in the face of a young man with a bottle for what we later discover is no reason at all. This guy is one scary bastard. The violence is stark and frequent, from the brutal face bashing to the bloody aftermath of torture.
Despite the child protagonist, fairy tale themes and spellbinding visuals, there is no way this film is for kids. It splits neatly between two stories: Mercedes and the rebels battling the (very obviously) evil Captain Vidal and Ophelia’s tumble down the rabbit hole into the dark and worrying journey she embarks on.
While arguing that this is a horror film (if I say it’s a horror movie it’s damn well gonna be classed as horror movie) let me point out some of the traditional horror tropes that sit comfortably in the film. First we have our protagonist arriving to her new home, a creaky old mill in the middle of a secluded forest next to a dark and spooky labyrinth. She arrives with very few allies other than an ailing mother. We also have an evil and powerful stepfather to contend with, not to mention a quickly developing cast of disgusting and terrible monsters. If that doesn’t sound like a horror movie, what does?
After a first fearful night, Ophelia follows a fairy (read: weird buggy creature thing) out to the labyrinth that lays beside the mill and meets a Faun (the name ‘Pan’ seems to a product of English translation as Del Toro has denied that he is Pan the Roman god.) Pan (or not) is a worrying and amazing piece of creature work. Half goat, half animated tree, he has a creepy, shuddering way of moving and despite the fact that he seems to be on Ophelia’s side, explaining that she is the lost daughter of the King of the Underworld, he’s still mesmerisingly freaky.
What follows is Ophelia’s journey to complete three tasks that will allow her to return to her true home. We’re never sure whether you’re supposed to take Ophelia’s experiences literally or just as a desperate young girl with a wild imagination trying to escape her current situation. It’s weird and scary as hell whichever way you look at it.
Throughout the film we meet various creatures and insects as she tackles her tasks. None are more terrifying than Del Toro’s Pale Man. A hideous and monstrous child eater with loose hanging skin and jowls, and removable eyeballs that he inserts into sockets in the palms of his hands. *Shudder*. Del Toro has always had an eye for weird and wonderful creations, from design to animation they are always sublime and more importantly are frequently terrifying.
The true monster of the film is of course the Captain, he is horrific in the traditional way, a man for whom violence comes quickly and brutally and nothing is too much or too far. The scenes involving him are stark and uncompromising. As the fears and tensions rise during both tangents, the film neatly instils concern for the rebels as well as investment in Ophelia’s unnerving journey through her fairy tale. Both stories mirroring one another nicely.
Much of the film is bathed in moonlight and is heavily coloured in browns, greys and dark greens, invoking the dark and twisty forest and keeping the tone gloomy and low. It really does look superb from the stone labyrinth to the gears of the mill looming large in the Captain’s quarters. Most of the creature work is crisp, well imagined and masterfully enacted, though I must admit the film shows it’s age when it slips into CGI, which has lost some of it’s power to impress over the years. Hopefully the same won’t be true of forthcoming Crimson Peak.
As the film progresses it manages to weave in and out of fantasy and reality with supreme grace and confidence, each element complimenting the other. Ophelia’s journey feels natural and organic and fits wonderfully with her personality and imagination.
If you would like to see a master of violent fantasy construct the most beautiful and terrifying fairy tale you’ll ever experience, try this wonderful piece of filmmaking and we’ll just see if the Pale Man doesn’t haunt your dreams from then on.
For more spine-chilling thrills to watch over Halloween, check out our complete 31 days of horror movies list.