Face-Off: Pan’s Labyrinth vs. The Devil’s Backbone

Last Updated on August 3, 2021

In the previous Face-Off, you chose the workforce over college life by selecting MONSTERS INC. over its prequel, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY.

With PACIFIC RIM hitting theaters on Friday, this week’s Face-Off pits two of Guillermo del Toro’s best films, 2006’s PAN’S LABYRINTH and 2001’s THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, against each other to find out which of these Spanish-language gems comes out on top.

PAN’S LABYRINTH tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl who stumbles upon a labyrinth and, through her ALICE IN WONDERLAND-esque journey, encounters a number of fantastical creatures, including the Faun and the Pale Man, which both allow her escape from the real world and symbolize most every major figure and event in her life.
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE concerns Carlos, a young boy who comes to an orphanage and discovers the ground’s greatest secret: the ghost of another adolescent (“the one who sighs”) who drowned years prior and ominously warns of dangers ahead.
Historical Context
One of the themes of both PAN’S and BACKBONE is the effect war has on people both old and young. PAN is set in the years following the Spanish Civil War. While the story primarily focuses on Ofelia, a subplot involves her stepfather’s relentless mission to resist all anti-Franco guerrillas.
BACKBONE is set just a few years prior to PAN during the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. Here, the backdrop is laid out by having the orphanage owned by two Republican supporters and under frequent attacks by Franco supporters.
Guillermo del Toro perfectly creates a fantasy world that no one had ever imagined before, with incredibly wondrous creatures like fairies and the aforementioned Faun and Pale Man (both played by Doug Jones). These characters stemmed from the director’s detailed notebooks and in part his “lucid dreaming,” and were created using expert makeup and costume techniques. Nearly every image inside of the labyrinth and its underworld stands above what other directors have so far conjured up for the genre.
BACKBONE focuses less on the fantasy element than it does horror, which limits the sorts of characters that will pop up. But del Toro’s grip on the horror genre (as also seen in 1993’s CRONOS) and ability to create a nail-biting atmosphere allow BACKBONE to be full of frightening images and moments. The standout is the scene that ranked on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments: Carlos cautiously creeps down to the basement, where he hears footprints that can only belong to the ghost Santi. And then we finally see him…
PAN’S LABYRINTH holds a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, making it one of the most critically acclaimed films of its year. In addition to snagging nods/wins at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and the Cannes Film Festival, it also earned six Oscar nominations (behind only DREAMGIRLS and BABEL), including ones for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score. It went on to win three statues, second only to the Best Picture winner, THE DEPARTED.
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE sits at a 91% on the Tomatometer, making it del Toro’s second-best reviewed work to date. It didn’t earn any Academy love, but it was nominated for a Saturn Award, a Goya Award and an International Horror Guild honor, to name a few.
Pan’s Labyrinth
While THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is one of the more effective horror films of the last dozen years (you’ll never see wet footprints the same), PAN’S LABYRINTH is a masterpiece of both its genre (with inventive set design, makeup and costumes) and world cinema (as reviews and accolades have supported). It is a fantasy for adults but still doesn’t belittle a child’s imagination or worries, and treats both its characters and subject matter with tremendous respect.

If you have suggestions for an upcoming Face-Off column, shoot me an e-mail at [email protected]!

Do you vote for faun or ghost?


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