London's FrightFest is now in its seventh year and has earned a reputation for being amongst the best festivals for fantasy and horror. It's always held over the late August 4-day Bank Holiday weekend and even the most diehard fan can easily reach satiation point. Out of the possible twenty-four features, I only saw seventeen (plus various shorts and trailers) since I do like to eat, sleep, and unwind occasionally!
Pan's Labyrinth was the opening attraction, but actually the fifth movie to be shown, and it was undoubtedly the fest's highlight. In fact, when it opens in the UK in November and the US in December, it deserves to be one of the year's highlights, and I can't urge you too strongly to make sure it is on your own must-see list, even if you try to avoid subtitled films.
Directed by the Mexican Guillermo del Toro, it forms a companion piece with his earlier movie The Devil's Backbone focusing on the disastrous effects of the Spanish Civil War on youngsters. Young Ofelia, beautifully played by 12-year-old Ivana Baquero, travels with her heavily pregnant and sickly mother to join the latter's new husband, a captain at an outpost surrounded by rebels. The captain is played by Sergi Lopez. He is probably better known in French films of late, and he is one of the most complete bastards and martinets imaginable — a devil of a man.
To escape the horrors of her new life, Ofelia enters an Alice-like maze where she meets a faun who convinces her she is really a princess and tells her she must complete a series of tasks to fulfill her destiny. Rather than depend on CGI, del Toro uses the actor Doug Jones to play both the faun and the scary pale man whom she encounters later on.
When you come to see the posters for this movie, you will recognize him as the one with his eyeballs in his palms! All of the fantasy effects are simply but strikingly done without spending the requisite millions of so many other recent films.
Back in the real world, Ofelia's only ally is the feisty housekeeper played by Maribel Verdu, familiar to many buffs as the lust-object from Y Tu Mama Tambien. Hers is an extremely strong role and she proves to be as single-minded as both the captain and, ultimately, Ofelia.
Del Toro was at the festival to introduce his film and to answer questions afterwards. He said he considers this film to be perfect, and I for one would not disagree with him. In between making Spanish language movies, he has also accepted the Hollywood shilling, but even with these there is much to admire. What he has created in this movie is an absorbing hybrid of the war, horror, and fantasy genres combined into a jet-black fable.
Miss it at your peril.