A Los Angeles apartment building falls prey to something very nasty--won’t you come along for the ride? A TV news crew accompanies a fire company to a Los Angeles apartment building where something has gone wrong. VERY wrong. For the next 90 minutes the characters--and the audience--embark on a grimy gritty shock-filled rollercoaster ride through the hallways of an apartment building that is soon under siege by both a threat inside and the obligatory threat (i.e. the authorities who are always interested in keeping the lid on things) outside. It’s never really explained what the pesky pestilence is that kick-starts this horror thriller nor does it really matter. As seen through the lens of the TV cameraman (Steve Harris) the audience gets a good jolt of high-concept horror in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield--but certainly more effective and better-rendered than the latter. It’s a pure edge-of-the-seat horror-fied (and horror-fried) adrenaline rush which should find great favor with fans of the genre. This is not a movie about acting unless acting is determined by how well people play under pressure. This is a concept movie a gimmick movie. The actors are merely there to fulfill their functions--show up scream and die--which they do with solid dispatch. Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter as the TV reporter-cum-heroine-by-default looks dynamite and screams even better. Jay Hernandez as a friendly fireman portrays manly panic quite well. He’s a hero and he’s a hunk but oh boy are the odds stacked against him! The majority of the ensemble cast ends up as fodder but they manage to make a positive impression that hurries this film along. This is not an actor’s movie but the actors most certainly do their part to keep the proceedings moving along. The real star of the show is Minnesota-born filmmaker John Erick Dowdle who maintains a relentless pace that serves this story--and the intended audience--very well indeed. If the intent was to make a gory paranoid rollercoaster ride that never lets up then the director has succeeded. You want to read more into it? Go ahead. I’m going for a drink to settle my nerves!
Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.