The way I see it, Fantasy Horror as a genre is a melting pot of spectacular imagery. Spectacular could be, just that, an amazing array of colours, artistic techniques and the overall success in astounding people which Pan’s Labyrinth achieves. However, Guillermo Del Toro’s film individualised a visual ability to be sumptuous, idyllic and warm in the midst of the impossibilities, dirt and anger infused in what we have all decided is the real world.
It’s safe to say that since its release in 2006, many films have followed a similar combination of comforting imagery and all of its fairy-tale like connotations with harsher truths. Coraline released in 2009 is one such film. The notion and image of a button: familial, safe and, most importantly, maternal, is subverted into a black circle of terrible nothingness and terrible pain. As much as Henry Selick’s animation shares traits with Pan’s Labyrinth (a girl travels through a door to find an alternate unsettling version of her world) Coraline answers the question of reality, we get the relief of knowing which world is real and which world is safe. Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t.
Whether Del Toro’s masterpiece gets to be called one of the greatest films of the 21st century is probably up to a desk of men sitting in a room somewhere. But why it’s on the table for such a position, I think, is because it doesn’t do what Coraline and other Fantasy Horror films do.
It doesn’t answer the question.
A child’s eye is just as able to distinguish between truth and lies, and both worlds which Ofelia inhabits have enough of both. As a film that explores beliefs and the powers that they can have, Del Toro leads us by the hand as he explores a range of options. Although the story heavily leans to our own moral inclinations, there’s fair time and space given to Vidal’s belief in power and traditional masculinity. We also follow and invest in Mercedes’ belief in morality, virtue and loyalty, almost as much as Ofelia’s belief in her own fantastical quest. Even Carmen’s belief in marriage and a kind of safety in family is clear to the naked eye.
The reality bending beauty of Pan’s world is simply another option that Del Toro gives the audience. You could call it escapism, it could be seen as a delusion but, to me, Pan’s Labyrinth’s staying power and dominance in Fantasy Horror comes from its way of exploring all of these beliefs, all of these realities with the same grade of grit and tangibleness. Del Toro’s mastery is in supplying the spectacular and the fantastical with dirt and earth and blood. In death, Ofelia fulfils her quest, she answers her questions and picks her truth. It’s the audience, it’s us, who are left no longer knowing what is real.
Pan’s Labyrinth is available on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as available to rent on digital platforms.