Pans Labyrinth (2006)

As harsh as it is human, filmmaking doesn’t get any more enlightened than this. Like the Brothers Grimm before him, this is a filmmaker who wants to give fairytales back their teeth.

Pan's Labyrinth

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mirabel Verdu, Sergi Lopez, Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones
Distributor: Picturehouse
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Warner Brothers
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: Unavailable
UK DVD Release Date: Unavailable

Once upon a time long, long ago, fairytales were more than just imaginative flights of fancy. They weren't cutesy or cuddly, aligned with strategic marketing to create excellent cross promotion and/or marketing advantages. No, back when they were first formed, they had more in common with our current urban legends than they did with wish fulfillment, ego integrity and lessons about sharing. If they were anything, a fairytale was a parable, a clear cautionary example of avoiding certain situations (traveling in the woods alone) and individuals (kindly old ladies bearing fruit) wrapped up in lots of prosaic pomp and circumstance. They also stood as a manner of social redistribution, a chance for the commoner to laugh at the crown or sneer at the wealthy and privileged. Today, all that's gone. In its place are PC platitudes and non-violent positivity.

Thank God then for Mexican maverick Guillermo Del Toro. If ever there should be a Latino Peter Jackson, it is this amazing moviemaker. Responsible for fascinating films in several genres – horror (Cronos, Mimic), action (Blade II, Hellboy) and drama (The Devil's Backbone) – he's perhaps the most underappreciated auteur working along the fringes of mainstream moviemaking today. It's not that audiences and/or critics fail to see his genius, it's just that many of the inventive masterpieces he creates tend to test the limits of legitimate popularity. With the arrival of his most recent effort, the spectacular El Laberinto del fauno (literally translated as The Labyrinth of the Faun – otherwise known as Pan's Labyrinth – new to DVD from New Line), it appears his moment has finally arrived. Though some would argue that Del Toro was always a recognized artist, it took something like this imaginative adult fable to finally secure his status as a significant cinematic sage.

Proposed as the middle movement of an indirect Spanish Civil War trilogy (of which Backbone becomes Part One), Pan's Labyrinth tells the tale of two desperate women – the frail and fragile Ofelia Vidal, and her seemingly sick mother. Turns out, Carmen Vidal is having complications with her recent pregnancy, the result of a liaison (and eventual marriage) to a Fascist, Captain Vidal. Forcibly moved from the city to his countryside headquarters, our military man is looking forward to the day when he will have a son to carry on his lineage. This makes Ofelia emotionally (and practically) unimportant, and the little girl looses herself in the many books of fairytales she carries with her. Luckily, the housekeeper Mercedes takes a shine to our heroine, and its not long before Ofelia learns her secret – along with the in-house doctor, she is helping the rebels in their battle against the Captain.

At this point, Pan's Labyrinth doesn't look like your typical fantasy film, and it's something Del Toro acknowledges over and over again. In the enlightening commentary track that accompanies the two disc special edition, the director makes it very clear that he is not out to make eye candy. "These images are meant as eye protein!" he proclaims, stating that everything in the film is to be taken literally, figuratively, symbolically and seriously. It's a great line, but it doesn't diminish the impact of what he's attempting. All throughout the DVD's highlight reels, galleries and documentaries, we see a man obsessed, feverishly working on how to bring the ideas locked in his head (and eventually drawn out in elaborate sketches and storyboards) out onto film.

The result is simply stunning. From the moment Ofelia 'discovers' her woodland guide into the Faun's spiraling subterranean lair (an apparent metaphor for the child's desire to escape her horrid surroundings), we witness the kind of vital visual splendor that has long gone missing from most Hollywood productions. Thanks to a reliance on practical effects (make-up, costuming, puppetry) and Del Toro's wonderful combination of the sinister with the sublime, the whimsical elements become deep, and rather disconcerting. Like the Brothers Grimm before him, this is a filmmaker who wants to give fairytales back their teeth. When Ofelia learns that she must complete three tasks to regain her crown as a Princess of Pan's underground kingdom, Del Toro makes their achievement a true test of movie macabre nerves.

These quests, coming at the center of the story, are meant to symbolize the internal struggles that any young person must face when confronted by the grown-up world. Indeed, Del Toro argues that what Ofelia is facing in each one of her challenges is the temptation of choice, and the confidence to decide direction for oneself. Courage is a key element in Pan's Labyrinth's narrative themes. We are supposed to see self-sacrifice and bravery parallel and surpass the brutal, bullying tactics of the Fascists, resulting in a realization of what truly matters in a time of war. Take the relationship between Carmen and her daughter. Here is a woman willing to literally sleep with the enemy to preserve her position in life, while she recognizes instinctively that her charmed child is no longer important. In order to survive, she must have the Captain's son – and it’s a price she's willing to pay with her own expiring existence.

Similarly, Mercedes and Dr. Ferreiro form an internal set of ghosts haunting this military machine. As the harried servant, Mercedes is trying to balance the needs of the Resistance (which her brother bravely fights for) with her own clandestine efforts to remain undetected and undeterred. She knows that death is around every corner in this well secured home, and all it takes is the wrong move, or trusting the wrong person, to uncover her treason. It's the same with our shaggy dog doctor. Since his role is more important in the Captain's eyes (he is keeping Carmen alive – at least long enough to save the baby), his is the easier deceit. In fact, the physician is so brazen in his behavior that it's not a question of how he gets caught, but when. Together, they understand their part in the paradigm. If they only protect themselves, others (and maybe the country itself) will be destroyed. But by slowly subverting matters from their position, no matter the personal consequence, they can save those they care about.

In the end, however, it all comes down to Ofelia. She is the most important emblematic element in Del Toro's struggle to fit the terrors of reality into a world awash in giant toads, sly satyrs, and the vile, vacant Pale Man. This character, a shriveled old effigy that can only see by placing eyeballs in the palms of his long-fingered hands, stands as Pan's Labyrinth's most important visual element. As the director discusses in the DVD's bonus material, here is a figure surrounded by opulence and luxury (the fiend's banquet table is overrun with succulent food) and yet all it can think about is the murderous desire to kill children. It engulfs and floods it, forcing it into a state of immobility and literal blindness. Adding to the allegorical nature of the creature is its surroundings. Resembling the Captain's own dining room, even matching it in style and design, Del Toro wants to make it crystal clear – power compels the enfeebled to feel invincible. And under such psychological strategies, the most horrifying of atrocities can occur.

It is therefore up to the innocent to show us the way. During the last act aspects of Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro continuously merges the mundane with the magical, twisting the two until we can no longer separate between them. One of the secrets spilled on the Special Edition is that our filmmaker believes in all the fantastical elements of the narrative. They are supposed to exist, not simply function as facets of Ofelia's crumbling grasp on reality. Similar to the ghost child in The Devil's Backbone that helps an orphanage defeat an insurgent foe, Pan and his collection of fairies are destined to destroy the efforts of the Fascists. Even when things take a turn toward the foul and fatal, it is the magic that remains constant. Its goal is clear – help Ofelia return to a land of bliss, to a place where there is no war, there is no suffering, and there is no sacrifice.

So, we're really not supposed to grieve in the end. Whatever happens demands celebration, not sadness. Whether it's real, merely a figment in a small child's mind, or a confusing combination of the two that tells us something incredibly heartbreaking about the world, Pan's Labyrinth retains its artistry and its urgency. As a film, it flowers over multiple viewings, exposing layers unrealized in previous visits. It sinks deep into your soul and surprises you with its bravery and warmth. As harsh as it is human, filmmaking doesn't get any more enlightened than this. It resembles what it must have felt like when readers first found the tale of the Little Match Girl, or experienced the brittle majesty of the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Back then, fairytales were more than just magic. Film is better for Guillermo Del Toro feeling exactly the same way.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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