Between the box-office success of Alfonso Cuarón and the critical kudos afforded Alejandro González Iñárritu, there hasn’t been much opportunity for Guillermo del Toro, the third bosom buddy in the triumvirate of directors to emerge from Mexico, to step into the limelight — until now. With Pan’s Labyrinth’s Stateside release, audiences will finally fall under the spell of the horror master most known for his comic-book adaptations Blade II and Hellboy, who has also won critics’ hearts for the touching and hair-raising Spanish ghost story The Devil’s Backbone. In del Toro’s world, happy endings are never what they seem, and children are always at the mercy of the cruelty of grownups.
In Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno) del Toro expertly weaves together two extremely violent worlds, that of Spain torn asunder by civil war and that conceived by the imaginings of a scared little girl, to show us how the outside world invades and preys upon the inner one. Although the posters for this film may suggest otherwise, they are not kidding when they mention this is an adult fairy-tale. More than once this writer found it difficult to endure graphic scenes in which blood flows freely.
Ofelia, played adeptly with a sweet countenance and expressive, dark eyes by 12-year-old Ivana Baquero, seeks comfort in her fairy-tale books. Her stepfather, Vidal (Sergi López of Dirty, Pretty Things), is a sadistic captain in Franco’s army who, five years after the end of the civil war, has been assigned to a remote outpost to stamp out the last guerrilla fighters hidden in the forest. Unable to rely on her mother, who is bedridden and about to give birth to the general’s son, Ofelia is left alone and stumbles upon an old labyrinth where she meets the faun Pan (Doug Jones). Pan, obviously playing to every child’s fantasy, tells the girl that she is a lost princess who must complete three dangerous tasks before she can return home to her real father. Ofelia is so desperate to escape from her life that she readily accepts the challenges given to her.
Under del Toro’s expert direction and storyteller’s skill, the fantasy creatures fit right in with the grownup’s world, and suspension of disbelief comes with ease. The exquisite detail found in the world to which Ofelia escapes is visually astounding in its imagination and revolting in its grotesque nature. Case in point and sure to give many an audience member nightmares is Ofelia’s confrontation with the Pale Man, an androgynous figure with oddly placed eyes whose hanging flesh and razor sharp fingernails are covered with the dried blood of children.
Ofelia’s only ally in the real world is the captain’s housekeeper Mercedes (Y tu mamá también’s Maribel Verdú) who is also accomplishing a dangerous task, spying for the guerilla forces. Mercedes’s Pale Man turns out to be Vidal, whose violent bursts come in stark contrast to his meticulous nature. As Captain Vidal goes about torturing (at one point he bludgeons a man’s face in with a bottle) and killing anyone who gets in his way, whether they are guilty or not, you will find yourself gripping your seat each time Mercedes’s secret is almost discovered. And when Ofelia’s and Mercedes’s worlds collide the adrenaline rush one experiences is almost unbearable. I found myself sinking in to my seat, praying that both of the main characters would make it out alive with all their limbs intact.