REVIEWED - PAN'S LABYRINTHMEXICAN director Guillermo del Toro returns to the post-Spanish Civil War setting of his arresting ghost story, The Devil's Backbone, for Pan's Labyrinth, adeptly blending magic realism, fairytale trappings and special effects for a film charged by the unrest that lingers in the aftermath of the war.
Just as Neil Jordan and Angela Carter took Little Red Riding Hood as the template for their dark and tangled screenplay in The Company of Wolves, del Toro taps into Alice in Wonderland for the story of a quiet young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who retreats into another world, an escape from a disturbing new environment, the rural home of her forbidding stepfather.
Ofelia's widowed mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is unwell and pregnant by her second husband, Vidal (Sergi López), a cold, callous captain in Franco's army - and the personification of fascism in his ruthless determination to annihilate the guerrillas still fighting in the countryside. He is unaware that his housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), is a covert ally of the resistance movement.
Discovering a mysterious labyrinth, Ofelia encounters a fantastical creature, Pan (Doug Jones), a satyr who reveals that Ofelia is the long-lost princess of a magical kingdom and that she has to accomplish three dangerous tasks if she is to return to her spiritual home.
The principal characters are firmly etched in the vivid performances of the expressive young Baquero; Verdú (who completed the emotional triangle in Y Tu Mamá También); and the versatile López, oozing sadistic malevolence as one of the most unsympathetic protagonists in the history of cinema.
Del Toro's ambitious and confident creation is an ingenious fusion of Gothic fantasy and startlingly harsh reality. The visual effects are extraordinary and captivating, yet never allowed to swamp the drama of the picture, and the tension escalates, often unbearably, in these parallel worlds as Ofelia's fate hangs precariously in the balance and Vidal metes out brutal torture in his merciless campaign against the rebels.
Irresistibly drawn into this potent hybrid of genres and styles, the viewer is frequently jolted as the movie cuts from the intriguing mystery and haunting wonders of the labyrinth to the horrors of a human world that is distinctly inhumane.
While elements of the film are as likely to enchant children as much as adults, its frequent scenes of shocking, graphic violence render it entirely unsuitable for younger audiences.