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Not Quite Horror: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth

Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s maestro Guillermo Del Toro’s masterful Pan’s Labyrinth.

Del Toro’s stunningly gothic fairy-tale Pan’s Labyrinth has been so accepted by horror fans as to almost render its inclusion in Not Quite Horror kind of unnecessary. However, given the flick is described on IMDb as a drama/fantasy/war movie(!?), we must consider its place as a genre movie alongside that of a regular person film (even if most of us wouldn’t call it anything else).

Except this movie is anything but regular. After infamously turning down more money to shoot in English, with known actors, Del Toro’s passion project comes to us in its purest, most deliciously dark form. It may not be designated as an official horror movie (whatever that means) but it is, by all accounts, a horror fairy-tale. And regardless of how brave or grown up you are, it’s still pretty bloody scary. 

Indeed, it kicks off with the heroine, Ofelia, being told she’s “too old” for “nonsense” fairy-tales by her mother, a desperate woman willing to settle down with a horrible man if it means a better life for the two of them. The backdrop of the Spanish civil war not only roots the story in reality, it provides an interesting juxtaposition between the horrors of the underworld and those of the real world.

The Faun in Pan's Labyrinth

Del Toro isn’t pulling any punches in his depiction of the bloodshed either; among other things we watch a man being tortured, another is shot in the head, through his hand, at close range and countless men mowed down in hails of gory gunfire. That’s saying nothing of the moment when the captain sews his own face, Texas Chainsaw-style. This may, ostensibly, be a kids’ horror movie but its R rating in the States and 15 in the UK suggests there’s stuff contained within that even the bravest adults may not be able to stomach.

Pan’s Labyrinth is at its most horrifying, of course, when Ofelia travels underground to meet horrid foes like the frog who chomps flies off her face or the ghastly Pale Man, whose eyeless visage and sagging skin are the true makings of nightmares. It’s this creation that’s become the film’s calling card, and even though he only appears in one, nail-biting sequence, it’s easy to see why.

The moment when he stirs and places his eyes into his hand sockets is stomach-churning and the noises his joints make as he moves ever-so-slowly towards Ofelia are horrifying, and that’s before we see him ruthlessly bite the heads off her fairy friends. The Pale Man also has paintings hanging on his walls depicting him murdering children, so even getting close to him at all doesn’t seem like the wisest option.

The Pale Man in Pan's LabyrinthThe fairy-tale elements in Pan’s Labyrinth are so spot-on that when it ventures outside to the real world, the effect should be lessened. But del Toro’s representation of a harsh, cruel reality in which horrible sacrifices must be made in order to survive ensures often what’s on the outside is worse. And, rather than giving Ofelia an easy way out at the end, the writer-director has her murdered in cold blood, making her ascension to the ranks of princess darker and more nuanced than if she’d made the easy choice and, quite literally, ran away with the fairies.

Pan’s Labyrinth is an old-school, very classical fairy-tale with a self-aware, modernist twist thanks to the juxtaposition of the war raging in the outside world. Seen almost entirely through Ofelia’s eyes, it’s also a rare delight in sort-of kids’ horror that spooks and thrills in equal measure. Del Toro’s is an incredibly tactile world, built mostly for real (the CGI splashes age it ever so slightly), with a rich, lush visual texture.

The creature design is this movie’s calling card for a reason, insanely detailed to a fault–even if poor Doug Jones couldn’t sit down in his faun costume–and the stuff of nightmares for adults and kids alike. It might just have turned the big 1-0, but Pan’s Labyrinth is one of those rare modern classics that has already etched itself onto our collective souls, partly because it’s so gorgeous to look at, but mostly down to the fact it’s really, really disturbing.

I mean, how many other kid-starring horror movies can you think of that feature paintings of children being killed in the lair of the main villain?

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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