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Tuesday
Oct092012

Oscar Horrors: Setting The Table for The Pale Man

Oscar Horrors continues with Michael on everyone's favorite Guillermo del Toro film

HERE LIES... Pan’s Labyrinth, winner of the 2006 Oscar for Best Art Direction.

I could go through Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth a scene at a time picking out all the brilliant little details that makes its imagery so indelible, but for this post, let’s limit our focus to the film’s most famous scene: The Pale Man. The monster that has a table full of delicious food but only feeds, to use del Toro’s words, “on the blood of the innocent.” There have been thousands of scenes where one form of monster or another stalks the story’s protagonist. It is one of the basic equations of the horror genre. So what do set decorator Pilar Revuelta and art director Eugenio Cabellero do with this one that shakes the viewer on such an elemental level? 

Of course it helps to start with one of the all time horrifying creatures in cinema history. Del Toro instructed the team to imagine an old obese man who quickly lost a lot of weight, and when that proved insufficiently nightmare-inducing proceeded to erase the face off their designs.

But beyond the surface there are many elements to the scene most viewers will only register subconsciously. Like... 

...the way the scene mirrors an earlier scene where the tale’s other monster sat at the head of another banquet table with his back to a fireplace. 

... or the way the shape Pale Man’s fireplace echoes his own disgusting mouth.

How about that the food on the Pale Man’s table is at once impossibly delicious – have you ever seen grapes so plump and glistening? – while at the same time unsettling in the way its predominantly red and purple color scheme suggests a feast of blood. 

And speaking of the basic equations of horror, how about reaching into a deep dark hole unsure of what resides inside? The production team made sure poor Ophelia was into the shadows up to her shoulder: Note also the way the production team took the care to make the tiny door Ophelia defies the fairies to open more ominous and shabby than the others.

And lest we get too deep into subtleties let’s not overlook all the obvious ways the production design gets under our skin. I can’t even begin to put into words the way that little dish the Pale Man uses for his eyeballs bothers me. Did he have a dish specifically for eyeballs? Or did the Pale Man just make do with whatever was handy? Never mind. I’m sorry I brought it up.

The symbolism of the long blood-red tunnel that Ophelia travels to reach banquet room would verge on the overly obvious if the scene didn’t warrant such broad strokes and if it were not so vividly realized. The murals high on the wall are horrifying in their own right, and establish the Pale Man as an terrifying threat even as he remains perfectly still.

Illustrations by Carlos Jimenez

Worst of all is that all-too-realistic pile of children’s shoes in the banquet room. Unnerving on its own, but exponentially more so for a story with themes of fascism set in the early 40’s 

One of del Toro's main inspirations for the film's mood was the paintings of Goya, specifically the pants-wettingly horrific “Saturn Devours His Children”

 That del Toro along with Caballero and Revuelta created a parade of horrors that can stand alongside the imagery of the Spanish master was an accomplishment worth awarding. 

Recommended Futher Reading
Great Overlooked Horror Scenes
Oscar Horrors the Complete Series (thus far)
Pan's Cakes for Breakfast

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Reader Comments (12)

LAAAV this entry. The film holds up amazingly well and this scene is still as spine-chilling as ever. Still sad about the lack of films Del Toro has done since. I mean, the second Hellboy was fun but I, frankly, would've killed to have seen his version of The Hobbit.

BTW that Art Direction win is one of my favorite Oscar wins from the last decade, tech or otherwise. SO deserving.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Dek Toro should be the one directing the Into the Woods movie.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

^Amen Joey.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJonny

Joey: I'd say "hopefully whoever gets that has actual directorial wit to spare", but it's currently Rob Marshall.
Mark the First: Really? You'd prefer Del Toro to be wasted on a project where his impulses might have wound up superseded by Peter Jackson's than working on Pacific Rim? Need I remind you: The last live-action film with a mech combat focus was freaking Robot Jox. So, yeah. I'm happy he wound up with his current project.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Michael -- i sometimes think the Pale Man sequence is the entire reason the movie got every nomination and won every award that it did. Just out of this world scary/brilliant. The rest of the movie I don't care for as much as everyone else but damn that sequence is perfect.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

You will get no argument from me about the brilliance of this scene, which belongs on a list with the shower scene from Psycho or the opening attack from Jaws. But I guess I feel a lot stronger about the film as a whole since Pan would have been my choice for #1 of 2006 and ranks high among my favorite of the last decade.

Repeated viewings have revealed the rest of the movie to be as layered and complex as the Pale Man. When I rewatch the movie (and I did for the umpteenth time for this post) I don't find myself waiting impatiently for the Pale Man. Maybe if I find the time I'll toss up another Oscar Horror about how brilliant this screenplay is.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Also, on a side note I couldn't quite fit into this post: How amazing is Doug Jones' pantomime performance as the Pale Man? Dig the way he takes a split second to see the fairies with the eyeballs in his palms before he snatches them out of the air.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

My favorite film of the aughts. Such a beautiful and tragic story that still gets the tears flowing after multiple viewings.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

I cannot talk about Pan's Labyrinth without gushing. And the funny thing is, the first time I saw it, I wasn't a huge fan. Chalk it up to expectations - I was led to believe it was like Alice in Wonderland transplanted to Franco-era Spain, and while that wasn't UNtrue, most of the film is decidedly NOT a fantasy. It left me disappointed on first viewing.

But when it came out on DVD, I snatched that sucker up on the day of release. Subsequent viewings have revealed it to be an incredibly complex, stunningly gorgeous film that deserved all the accolades it got and then some. Easily my favorite film of 2006 and one of the best of the aughts. There's one other sequence (besides the Pale Man, which is as perfect as it gets) that always gets me, and it's one that has stayed with me since that first viewing. I don't think I even have to say which one it is, since it seems to be the one that everyone remembers, but I will anyway. When the Captain stitches his mouth up. I can't even think about it without getting chills.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I love this movie! And, yes, subsequent viewings has made me notice many of the details in the art direction not just in the Pale Man scene (yes, a brilliantly chilling scene), but the Captain's house, that beautiful labyrinth, the tree with the frog that eats everything in sight, there is so much detail in every scene that makes this film not only terrifying, but deeply moving. Michael, I think you should do a post about its two other wins, Cinematography and MakeUp. While I agree with most that Children of Men should have won Cinematography that year, the cinematography in this film is terrific and a worthy winner. I love that scene where Ophelia has her first encounter with the fairy (the way the camera moves around her bed as she looks for what's there is just stunning). I also love that scene where she's reading the book for her first instructions while she's about to take a bath, and of course there's the much drearier scenes where the Captain attack the soldiers on the mountain.

Also, I think this film should have won Original Score (that haunting lullabye theme stayed in my head for weeks after I heard it). Speaking of that theme, Maribel Verdú is awesome and I love that scene where she hums that theme for Ophelia, saying it's a lullabye she doesn't remember the words to (by the way, anyone know if Ivana Baquero has done anything after this? I thought she was so good in this movie, I thought we would see more from her soon after....)

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

If Rob Marshall's smart, he'll get this team to do the art direction for "Into the Woods" at least. Silver lining and all . . .

Nice entry into the continuing series, Michael.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterUrey

Before reading this I happened to watch Pan's Labyrinth with the commentary. I see you have too. Del Toro is a crazy genius. I had never even though about the fact that before this scene Ofelia has been essentially grounded and hasn't eaten for two days so the food looks extra enticing to her! God I love this movie.

October 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrady
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