Beautiful Beasts: The Pale Man

by George Lea

This is an ongoing series. Read the other articles here.

Trying to select a specimen of monstrous beauty from Guillermo del Toro’s various bestiaries is a little like trying to pick a favourite book; all but impossible, as each one is engaging, disturbing and brilliant in its own particular way:

From the not-quite-vampire creature of Cronos to Hellboy’s angel of death, Guillermo’s creations are generally not only bizarre and distressing, but suffused with character; an implied mythology that is rarely expanded on screen; merely suggested by setting, environment and the ticks and traits that their actors and animators invest them with (Doug Jones, whose speciality is in portrarying the latex or CG monster, is a past master at this; marrying his skill to Del Toro’s vision always creates something notable, and in this instance, arguably unsurpassed).

There is a story concerning Pan’s Labyrinth’s iconic Pale Man that del Toro screened the one scene in which occurs, out of context, for his friend Stephen King who, by the end, was practically crawling over the back of his seat in terror and proclaimed it one of the most distressing things he’d seen in cinema.

The Pale Man. One of many fantastical and monstrous entities that occurs within Pan’s Labyrinth, arguably born from the distorted imaginative world of the film’s child protagonist; inspired by the many cruelties and atrocities she has been exposed to in her waking life (note how the Pale Man’s scene echoes almost shot for shot an earlier one in which her fascist step-father entertains numerous corrupt dignitaries at a lavish dinner (all either disinterested in the atrocities he has committed or openly admiring of them). Eagle-eyed viewers might notice that the framing of The Pale Man echoes and even directly synchronises with the framing of the girl’s step-father in this scene, making it plain that the ogre-like creature of her nightmares (that seems to arguably be a manifestation of her negative and destructive drives; her fears, her anxieties; her hungers and obsessions) is inspired by or directly reflects the man who has come to hold such sway over her life; that he is, in a very real sense to her, a monster; something that has taken on such powerfully negative connotations in her perceptions as to become mythological; a manifestation of all that is hateful and destructive and consumptive in the world.

The Pale Man himself is an entity whose environment is as much part of him as his anatomy; seated at the head of a great table, its surface overspilling with plates of simultaneously sumptuous yet disturbingly lurid food (everything on the table has a red sheen to it, as does the architecture and the Pale Man himself; a palette that distresses the eye; that is redolent of blood, violence and infection; that recalls earlier scenes of waking world violence, often initiated and celebrated in by her step father). His chambers are opulent, almost temple-like, the scarlet and crimson stone carved into sweeping, organic shapes, lending the place the ethos of having been crafted from flayed and mutilated flesh. Frescoes provide a visual history of the Pale Man, depicting him in the midst of massacres and cannibalistic butcheries that seem entirely at odds with his feeble, emaciated frame.

The creature itself is an aged, withered and distorted thing, its spindly limbs supporting a flabby, fleshy frame, a swollen, all but featureless head, save for the slits of nostrils and a gaping mouth. His hands (black, blood-stained claws) lie splayed out on the table, a pair of disembodied eyes laid on a plate before him.

His introductory shot has all of the distressing beauty of a William Blake or Francisco Goya painting (the latter unsurprising, as del Toro himself details on the Pan’s Labyrinth DVD commentary that Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring His Son was one of the key inspirations for the monster); the very essence of a beautiful yet distressing monstrosity. Everything about his setting and aesthetic radiates threat, though it is all but motionless; the camera lingering over its subtly distorted details and dimensions.

The Pale Man himself sits motionless, not seeming to notice the girl’s intrusion; not even seeming to be alive.

Until she defies the warnings of her guide, the Faun; until she tastes a single, blood-syrupy fruit from the table.

Then, the Pale Man stirs, his fingers breaking from the table as though sealed to it by blood, flexing and trembling as though not having moved for many, many decades.

The camera focuses on him while the girl is distracted, not noticing the ogre stirring at her back. The creature reaches out, grasping the eyes from their setting, placing them into stigmatic holes in its palms, raising its hands to its face and splaying them palms out, its eyes revolving as they seek out the intruder.

Rising from his seat, he begins to awkwardly shamble towards the girl, his motions jerky and awkward; those of something wounded, something broken and run down (again, part of Doug Jones’s particular magic, his motions suggesting characteristics and even back story that are never made overt). Meanwhile, the girl is preoccupied with the task the Faun has set her; a series of locked cupboards to which she only has one key (claimed in an earlier bout of inspired dreaming in which she conjured a monstrous, poisonous toad in whose stomach the key sat), her fairy guides swirling and twittering around her as the Pale Man drawers closer, closer…

Beyond his design, his symbolism; his incredibly threatening presence, the Pale Man evokes something particularly profound in the audience’s breast; a childhood fear of impossible things in the dark; of nightmare creatures lingering barely a step behind, reaching for us, intent on devouring us…he is the fairy tale ogre; the demon that will descend if we stray from proscribed paths (the creature is stirred by the girl’s transgressions, after she is explicitly warned to touch and eat NOTHING in the chamber save what she came for). Del Toro captures and evokes something primal and particular through this monstrosity; a creature that resonates in collective imagination; that leaves us no choice but to place ourselves behind the girl’s eyes; to become a child again, at prey to the (often cruel) vicissitudes of our own imaginations.

Like most entities in the film, The Pale Man is simultaneously an imagined horror and a literal one; his potential cannibalism of the mind that (potentially) gave birth to him; that he is a reflection of, at least in some part, a commentary on how corrosive and lethal imagination can be when it turns our own darkness upon us; when it emphasises and exaggerates, when it distorts and harasses us.

But he is also essential; cypher for the girl discovering her own capacities; for facing and realising the darkest, most terrible elements in her own self and psyche; in the waking world that fuels and influences them. Without The Pale Man, she would not descend into depths of terror and realise her own endurance for those things; she would not have the strength to face or defy her step-father, the fascist, genocidal sadist of whom The Pale Man is a twisted and mythologised reflection.

The creature is far more than a mere cinematic monstrosity; he is a monster of the mind; neurosis and disturbance and consumptive cruelty made manifest in a diseased and shambolic creation; a cannibal, fairy tale ogre whose resonance is universally and profoundly human; of the same species that haunts our collective dreams, fantasies and folk-tales; the mythologies that transcend time and culture to still warrant telling to this day.

In that, his bizarre beauty transcends the physical or aesthetic; whilst stunning from a design and framing point of view, his deeper resonance and profundity renders him engaging on entirely other levels; those that burrow down into the depths of collective human sub-conscious and dare to host the deepest and most delirious nightmares of the species.

George Lea inhabits a state of being slightly removed from the standard that can occasionally be accessed via the UK Midlands (most notably the town of Tamworth). In between his work as a carer for people with mental disabilities, he spends time baking elaborate cakes and scribbling down the insanity that swills around inside his head. He’s of the opinion that if anyone got a good look at that stuff, it would be akin to when one of H.P. Lovecraft’s characters stares into the face of an Elder God. He’ currently involved with the photographer Nick Hardy in a joint project entitled “Born in Blood,” a collection of images and short fiction exploring psychological disease, on the heels of his last collection, Strange Playgrounds.