The theater screened previews for several dreadful-looking horror movies before showing Pan’s Labyrinth, and that puzzled me at first. I rarely see previews for this kind of dreck—they just don’t appear before the films I usually attend—so why were they playing now? Then I remembered that Pan’s Labyrinth is, technically, a horror movie itself. The villain, a viciously sadistic captain under Generalísimo Franco, gleefully tortures resistance fighters he captures, and numerous freakish mythical creatures make appearances as well. It is a horror movie, but to put it in the same category as a banal monster-attack flick or soulless torture-porn seems terribly unjust.
Writer-director Guillermo del Toro takes the familiar tropes and grotesqueries of horror and uses them to tell a fairy tale. Such a meld might have been perverse, but del Toro’s sensitive treatment of his young protagonist elevates both genres. Pan’s Labyrinth is horrifying but beautiful, a heartbreaking tale of an innocent struggling against a very dark world.
The protagonist, Ofelia, is a lonely little girl living in a remote Spanish country house with her pregnant mother and cruel stepfather. Spirited and fanciful, Ofelia comes to believe that she is a princess exiled from an immortal land in the depths of the earth. She must undertake three trials to reclaim her throne, leaving behind all violence and pain for the perfect peace of her true home.
Del Toro isn’t interested in whether Ofelia’s blissful underworld, populated by fairies and fauns, is “real” in any literal sense. The mysteries of that world blend seamlessly into the terrors of our own, where prisoners are tortured, women are abused, and any resistance to those cruelties seems hopeless.
Yet Pan’s Labyrinth is not a hopeless film. It is hauntingly beautiful—in one of my favorite scenes, a stick insect transforms itself into a storybook fairy before Ofelia’s delighted eyes—and the beauty goes beyond visual dazzle. Ofelia (played by precocious Ariadna Gil) is a worthy heroine: brave, generous, and resourceful. We sense that she won’t be able to hold onto her childhood innocence much longer, but we also see the example set by the housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), a good woman who has lost her illusions but soldiers on nonetheless, and we know that an open-eyed Ofelia would be strong, too.
Such storytelling is lovely and delicate but not subtle. The characters are archetypes, easily described with a few strong adjectives, yet the movie resists shallow sentiment. It earns its emotional wallop with bravura performances, sumptuous imagery, and a perfectly wrought dramatic arc.
Del Toro knows how to create a perfect cinematic moment. Even in Blade II, one of his schlockier English-language efforts, he created an evocative tableau of a fatally wounded vampire glimpsing the sunrise for the first time and basking in its warmth even as the beams of light turn her ruined body to ash. In Pan’s Labyrinth, he has extended that kind of wordless, elemental poetry over an entire film. He has transcended both horror and fantasy; with Ofelia, he has achieved the resonance of myth.