Pan's Labyrinth vs. The Devil's Backbone

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I’m a big fan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Not so much his mainstream fare (Hellboy, Mimic, Blade II, et al), but his more personal works such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone, for which he even designed the more fantastical characters. Those two films, it has been pointed out, are like two takes on the same kind of story, one based in fantasy and the other in horror.

I recently watched them both back to back ---

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Written and directed by del Toro, Pan's Labyrinth concerns a little girl named Ofelia and her pregnant mother, who has made the unfortunate choice of marrying Captain Vidal, a brutal military man cutting a violent course as he battles resistance fighters in 1940s post-Civil War Spain. When the girl discovers a magical faun who seems to be mentoring her in the ways of magic (or is its purpose more sinister?), her escapist "fantasy" life begins to grow and grow, while the horrors of the real world spin out of control around her.

The faun convinces Ofelia that she's the lost princess of a nearby garden labyrinth, which to her eyes is a magical wonderland, while others see it merely as an overgrown row of messy hedges. To earn her royal birthright, Ofelia must complete three tasks, each more difficult and terrifying than the previous one

Image The DVD commentary clarifies a bit as to whether the little girl playing the lead is really piercing the fabric of myth, or if she's just living out a dreamlike fantasy to escape from her increasingly grim reality - but much is still left open to the viewer's interpretation.

Until repeat viewing, I didn't even notice subtle touches like how the faun seems to grow younger and stronger as the movie unfolds, perhaps strengthened by the girl's belief and acceptance of it ---

Despite the subtitles (rough on those of us with the attention span of a gnat on meth), this movie sucked me in like no other I can recall in recent memory. It's astounding and thought provoking - and, oh yeah, a couple of scenes are scary as all getout!

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That creepy critter that holds its eyeballs in its hands freaked me out so much, I shouted out loud the first time he went all del Toro!

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I keep obsessing over this movie and rewatching – so then I checked out the very similar bookend to the story that director/creator del Toro did, the Devil's Backbone, a more horror-based tale. Though the real horrors have little or nothing to do with the supernatural.

Image Like Labyrinth, it's got a young child (an orphan boy this time) hand-building his own alternate reality amidst a horrific wartime setting (an orphanage in the middle of a war zone), a fantasy world that may or may not be real...

While Labyrinth mixed fairy tale fantasy with a grim war-torn storyline filled with mortally threatened children, Devil's Backbone replaces the fairies with ghosts ---

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I'd quibble with the Reader’s longtime resident critic Duncan Shepherd, who called Devil’s Backbone "Not at all scary" ---- I would think ANYone would be scared out of their wits by Backbone, not so much from the supernatural elements (which, as in Pan's Labyrinth, may or may nor be merely imagined by children- the clues are there for those who seek them) but rather from the horrifying wartime realities portrayed.

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The unexploded bomb that sits in the middle of the village-slash-stockade is only a portent of the impending horrors to befall most (or rather ALL) of the characters.

Though the missile itself never explodes, nobody escapes the inevitable and ominous shrapnel of the civilized and (somewhat) educated world exploding into barbarity all around them.

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I rank Pan's Labyrinth among my top ten most-watched and most-obsessed over films. Devil's Backbone will surely grace my player several more times this summer --- it's already creeping under my skin and burning its startling imagery into my brain, much like Labyrinth did (and still does).

The score? Sorry, folks, this one’s a tossup – I give ‘em both four of four stars!

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