Welcome back to Nerds Gets Spooky, our series highlighting some of our favorite horror films, television series, and more! Today’s article celebrates the 15th anniversary of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s exploration of imagination in the face of inhuman brutality.
“In darkness, there can be light. In misery, there can be beauty. In death … there can be life.”
Like much of del Toro’s work, Pan’s Labyrinth uses the supernatural to illuminate the monstrous behavior of humanity. Set in 1944 in Spain during fascism’s rise in the country, we follow the story of Ofelia, a young girl whose obsession with fairy tales helps distract her from her violent life as the stepdaughter of a ruthless general. But soon, her life becomes one of her stories when she meets a mysterious Faun in the ruins of a labyrinth near her home. According to the Faun, she is actually the long-lost, reincarnated princess of a faerie realm, destined to reclaim her throne after she completes three tasks. But is this dream world real? Or is it just Ofelia’s way of coping with her own trauma? And more importantly — what sacrifices will the three tasks ask of her?
From a technical perspective, Pan’s Labyrinth is flawless. The film’s three Oscar wins were in craft categories (Art Direction, Makeup and Hairstyling, and Cinematography), and each was well deserved. The Faun and the Pale Man (both played by the legendary creature actor and del Toro favorite Doug Jones) both feel terrifying for different reasons and the stunning creature makeup by David Martí, Montse Ribé, and Xavi Bastida is iconic. Pan’s Labyrinth is beautiful to look at, with the color palette shifting between the underworld and Ofelia’s home in Spain. del Toro has said the idea for the character of the Faun and for the story overall came from a lucid dream experience he had, and the dreamlike imagery of Pan’s Labyrinth reflects this. The behind the camera talent created a grotesquely beautiful realm full of instantly memorable creatures, contrasting it with the gory violence and terror of Ofelia’s human world.
But it’s the characters who draw viewers in from the start, grounding the fantastical elements in realism. The performances are uniformly brilliant, from Sergi López as Ofelia’s despicable stepfather to Maribel Verdú as Ofelia’s surrogate mother Mercedes. The center of the film is Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, who was just 11 years old when the film was shot. Her innocence is stark against a backdrop of torture and despair, and her stubborn insistence on believing in light amidst the darkness is heartbreaking. del Toro is not especially interested in the question of whether Ofelia’s experiences are real, leaving that interpretation to the audience while providing many clues either way. But the harsh and tragic ending will have many hoping the world of the Faun is real, and that is down to Baquero’s Ofelia.
Pan’s Labyrinth was hailed as a masterpiece upon its release in 2006, and its continued relevance today confirms that view. It broke barriers for foreign films at the Academy Awards as well as genre films in general, even though it was snubbed for Best Foreign Language Film (an oversight that ranks as one of the most bizarre losses in Oscar history). Pan’s Labyrinth firmly established del Toro as one of the best horror directors working today, though I would argue it is a better fit in the dark fantasy genre. It also works as an excellent companion piece to his earlier film The Devil’s Backbone, which del Toro has said was intentional (and is also an excellent horror film that deserves to be more widely seen).
Wholly original and stunningly imaginative, Pan’s Labyrinth has been called a “fairy tale for adults.” But I would argue that the film is exactly what a great fairy tale should be, regardless of target audience: fantastical, yet drawing a clear parallel to the troubles of our world. Before fairy tales were the realm of Disney princesses, they were the realm of monsters, and Pan’s Labyrinth reflects that dark history. A gorgeously shot and brutal story about the horrors of fascism as viewed by a child, it is haunting and stays with viewers long after the final credits roll, especially with its ambiguous and tragic ending that defies easy explanation.