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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
In PAN'S LABYRINTH, Writer / Director / Producer Guillermo del Toro returns to World War II within the Spanish perspective.
Adolph Hitler encouraged Mexico to attack the U.S., envisioning a three prong attack from the Atlantic: by Germany, The Pacific: from Japan, and Mexico in the South. Mexico not only said "No." but did something uniquely unexpected: They welcomed the fleeing Spanish Republicans (mostly children) whose parents fought and died against the Nazis and the Nationalist traitor, Francisco Franco.
Franco sought to overthrow the elected Spanish Republic, which consisted of ordinary Spaniards, communists, and anarchists. Franco was heavily supported by the Catholic Church, the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini, and many wealthy land owning Spanish families. Though the Axis powers fell, Generalissimo Franco Francisco won, ruling Spain as a military police state until his death in 1975. So you know that any movie taking the side of those who lost will be tragic.
Such was the case with del Toro's 2001 Gothic Horror masterpiece, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. Guillermo del Toro wants to make his career in Horror movies, but he won't be satisfied with the dimwit Hollywood hack and slash excuses for Horror (few Horror fans are, which is why nearly all of the Horror Thriller classics in film are made outside the Hollywood system). Guillermo understands that Horror comes first, not from two-bit body counts, special effects, nudity or brutality, but from caring about the characters you see on the screen.
The film starts with narration, which is usually a bad thing, but works here because the voice we hear is telling a fable by the girl of this tale, Ofelia, who is reading one of her books. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero: ROMASANTA: THE WEREWOLF HUNT, ROTTWIELER, FRÁGILES) and her pregnant Mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil: EL EMBRUJO DE SHANGHAI, AUSENTES) ride in a bumpy car somewhere in the year 1936. Carmen is ill with pregnancy and irritably asks her daughter to stop reading her childish fantasies. To insure their safety in war torn Spain, Carmen made a deal with the devil: She carries the unborn child of one of Franco's military officers, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López: BETWEEN YOUR LEGS, WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS). While Carmen tries to make the best of the situation, it is clear that Vidal has only one thing in mind, the birth of his child: a child who, for Vidal, had best be a boy. Carmen's life and that of Ofelia are unimportant.
Guillermo paints his many characters in great subtleties of depth.
Ofelia, uprooted and without the only father she ever loved, is disobedient for the sake of being contrary. Even though she loves her Mother and appreciates their situation, this is her only way to rebel.
Carmen, at first seen as little more than a sick and pregnant woman, opens slowly throughout the course of the film as a person who knew of nothing else to save her family than take a dangerous, calculated risk.
The Timid keeper of the House, Mercedes, minds a tender heart beneath her steel, carrying great strengths of resolve within but worried that her chance to use that reserve may already have past.
Vidal, on the other hand, is weak, brutal, stupid, and thuggish. Within that thug mentality exists very little except to obey orders from above and for his orders to be obeyed. In his quiet moments, through the skillful direction of del Toro and the acting of López, we understand the frightened man inside and his self-loathing awareness.
Meanwhile, the war, battles and life's brutalities, go on as Ofelia's mother writhes in day to day agony. Ofelia escapes in her books, but at this new mansion in the woods, a place that has been turned into a fortress, Ofelia has discovered a maze of walls that travel into the hillside. Mercedes tells her it's an ancient labyrinth and dangerous. But Ofelia, having nothing else to occupy her time, obeys only her disobedient nature to explore the labyrinth, coming upon the titular character of this movie, Pan (Doug Jones: MIMIC, BUG BUSTER, MEN IN BLACK II, HELLBOY, DOOM).
Pan calls her highness and says that she is not a human, but in reality a great Princess. To prove her worth, and that her great spirit hasn't been tainted by the stain of cruel humanity, she must pass three tests.
PAN'S LABYRINTH is told in a lavish richness of characterization and story, but a minimal of set design and costume. A war is going on and everyone, even the wealthy, are poor to some degree.
Part of this maximum minimalist fairy tale involves some elaborate CGI and practical makeup effects, brought together in a synergy so complete I couldn't tell where one started and the other stopped - which is the way its supposed to be. Kudos for this to Reyes Abades (SEXY BEAST, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE), Everett Burrell (BLADE, FRAILTY, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, GOTHIKA, HELLBOY, BLADE: TRINITY, SIN CITY), Edward Irastorza (BLADE, BLADE II, HELLBOY, SIN CITY), the CafefX Crew (GOTHIKA, HELLBOY, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, BLADE: TRINITY, SIN CITY, KING KONG , UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, SNAKES ON A PLANE) and creature design by Sergio Sandoval.
There are moments of true horror and frights and just as the people of Spain were torn between two governments within, neither of which had their best interests in mind, so Ofelia wonders if Pan is a true friend or an evil out to trick her for his own purpose.
The great care with which del Toro tells this tale is heartbreaking and the fear comes from the honest feelings he evokes for the safety of the rebellious Ofelia.
I watch and read at least a hundred Horror Thriller tales every year, in the hopes of coming across such a true example of Horror at its finest. Precious few great directors have been able to create one masterpiece in their lifetime. Guillermo del Toro has two: THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE and PAN'S LABYRINTH. Gothic Horror fans, this is the one you've been waiting for.
5 Shriek Girls.
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