To the Curzon Soho for Guillermo Del Toro's terrifying tour de force of nightmarish fairy tales and Spanish fascism, Pan's Labyrinth. If you were expecting, as I was, an Iberian Fantasia, instead add Snow White to the Godfather and multiply by The Omen and you'll be closer.
The film is set in 1944 in the backwoods of Spain, with its newly-minted fascist state under Franco. A young girl is being taken to live with a general in the army because her mother, pregnant with his child, is to marry him. The girl, Ofelia (a terrific 11-year old Ivana Baquero), has more interest in fairy stories. When you see the new life she has to experience, you can understand why.
Escape from the terrible world of the general (Sergi López), who takes pleasure in torturing anti-Franco partisans, comes as a fairy leads Ofelia through a maze adjacent to her house and down into an underworld of terrifying-looking creatures, including a faun (Pan of the title). Ofelia, he says, is a princess from the underworld who must do three tasks before she can be returned to her rightful, golden place.
The tasks involve hideous creatures, including one who looks like a pale version of the Alien but has his eyes in his palms. When he chases after Ofelia, you're short of breath from terror. See if you don't scream.
Meanwhile, in the real (or semi-real or nightmare) world above ground, the general (a step-father fulfilling the traditional evil step-mother's role) is trying to root out the rebels, who are being helped by his housekeeper and doctor, from the hills. When he catches one, the torture's result is horrific.
The aesthetic of the film is grim greys and blacks, almost a washed-out, darkened version of reality to reflect the fear and hopelessness of the time. Instead of Hollywoodised Harry Potter horror (although Alfonso Cuaron, also a young Mexican director like Del Toro, made HP4 darker and better), the atmosphere is unremitting, suiting the action. The general rules by terror and force, a figure with no redeeming qualities; even his attempt at valour is self-regarding. Del Toro has made him a monster, but then he is trying to illustrate a horrific period.
One of Pan's Labyrinth's strengths is that it does not shy away from violence. Del Toro sanitises nothing, preferring to show the terror of fascist Spain and the terror of fairy tales together; there is no hiding place but death. The violence is not unbearable - it's no Irreversible - but only just. Worse is the constant implied violence in every scene with the captain.
The film is utterly terrifying. There's no getting around it. It is, tho', also a masterclass in weaving politics and fairy stories together to create a world where reality and fantasy are shades of one another, but neither is one you'd want to be in. Even the baby's birth, with attendant fairy tale consequence, is not your saviour-trope - Spain still has 30 years before it is free of fascism.