Saturday, February 21, 2015

My Favorite Directors: Guillermo del Toro

“When people say, ‘Oh, fantasy’s a great escape,’ I reply, ‘I don’t think so.’ Fantasy is a great way of deciphering reality.” – Guillermo del Toro (from Guillermo del Toro – Cabinet of Curiosities, by Guillermo del Toro and Marc Scot Zicree)

It may not have been love at first sight when I initially watched a Guillermo del Toro film, but I knew there was a fertile imagination at work, suggesting a potential for something great. One viewing led to the next, initiating an interest that grew stronger with each subsequent film. And aren’t the relationships you build and nurture over time the most rewarding ones?

There’s nothing else quite like a del Toro movie. His particular brand of dark fantasy has become his trademark over the years. Even at his most moribund, there is an inherent elegance, where form and function go hand in hand. Everything is meticulously planned, stemming from journals filled with detailed notes and drawings. Del Toro cited numerous cinematic, literary and artistic influences in his book Cabinet of Curiosities, providing insight into his creative process. Nestled somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area lies his home away from home, Bleak House* (probably the closest thing our generation has to Forrest Ackerman’s “Ackermansion), where he pauses to reflect, plan new projects, and catalog his obsessions.

* Unfortunately, his amazing collection of artifacts, artwork and movie-related miscellanea is not open to the general public, although I would gladly make a pilgrimage to California for a chance to sneak a peek (are you listening, Mr. del Toro?). 

Del Toro started out with short films and the Mexican horror anthology TV series Hora Marcada, eventually graduating to directing his first feature film, Cronos, followed by a string of films that reflected his diverse tastes, but share a common thread. One dominant inspiration has been H.P. Lovecraft, whose themes resonate throughout many of his films, describing ancient, dormant civilizations, waiting to emerge again. Unlike Lovecraft, however, his films reflect the civilizations’ capacity for good as well as evil.

Over the past two decades, del Toro’s cinematic resume has barely scratched the surface of the concepts, rough sketches and story ideas trapped in his notebooks. For every movie that gets the green light, there are several others that will likely never come to fruition. For several years, he was attached to direct the Hobbit films for producer Peter Jackson, but decided to step down when the production became mired in development hell. What seemed like a career setback enabled him to pursue other notable projects such At the Mountains of Madness and Hellboy III, which sadly remain unproduced but could surface again someday. I anxiously await Crimson Peak, which appears to be a return to the basics, with its supernatural themes and ghostly imagery. It’s a bit disappointing that his next project in the immediate future will be a sequel to Pacific Rim, but any del Toro film is still cause for celebration. What’s next? Only time, and the willingness of film companies to bankroll his distinctive vision, will tell.

Key characteristics of a Guillermo del Toro film:

  • Gothic settings, reflecting a particular fondness for baroque architecture. Many of his settings have a lived-in, organic look, full of dark, hidden passageways, cavernous interiors and grand archways. Many of his films feature old ruins and crumbled remains of long-dead civilizations, conceived by an ancient intelligence we could scarcely comprehend. The Old Ones, from Lovecraftian tales, would have been right at home.
  • Infatuation with clockwork and time. The diabolical golden scarab in Cronos is a centuries-old device, comprised of an elaborate network of gears. Another example is the villain Kroenen from Hellboy, who has replaced his inner workings with clockwork to prolong his life beyond any natural constraints. In del Toro’s films, the turning gears not only reflect the ephemeral passage of life, but paradoxically suggest the perpetual, unstoppable motion of time.
  • Intentional use of color. Color doesn’t just set the mood, but becomes a character in his movies, as exemplified by the prevalence of blues, golds and red in Hellboy, green in Mimic, and red at the Pale Man’s banquet table in Pan’s Labyrinth.
  • Spirituality. Although his films are redolent with Catholic imagery such as crucifixes and rosary beads, it’s more indicative of the symbols that were important in his childhood and his own spiritual journey, rather than an attempt to convert the audience.
  • The intersection of Fantasy and reality. There is a hidden world, co-existing on the same plane as the known world, which is just as real but intangible to most people. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the young girl Ofelia is the only one capable of perceiving this otherness, and the fairy tale creatures that inhabit the space around her home. The Troll Market in Hellboy II is another example of a parallel world, just under the Brooklyn Bridge, in plain sight, but invisible to the ordinary individual.
  • Eyes as the window to the soul. Del Toro plays with our perceptions, with The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, with removable eyes resting on a plate, or his spiritual analog, the Angel of Death in Hellboy II, possessing multiple eyes in his wings. Kroenen from Hellboy, who had his eyelids surgically removed, provides a hideous reminder of the humanity he’s lost.

Ranking Guillermo Del Toro’s Films (note that his television projects are not represented here):

  1. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) Generally regarded as del Toro’s masterpiece, and who am I to argue with that? Alternately beautiful and terrifying, del Toro has constructed an elaborate dark fantasy world, contrasting the grim realities of life under a fascist dictatorship. The fairy tale creatures that inhabit his world are far from benign or safe, as evidenced by the ambiguous Faun or the fearsome Pale Man (both played by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones). But neither of these creatures can approach the cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) for sheer loathsomeness. Rating: *****
  2. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) This exceptional film fits nicely, as a thematic companion to Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a ghost story and a mystery, set amidst the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The orphanage setting underscores the collateral damage of war, as it impacts children and adults, and proves we have much more to fear from the living, rather than the dead. Rating: **** ½
  3. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) This immensely entertaining sequel to Hellboy, reflects the influence of Pan’s Labyrinth with its heart and substance. It one-ups its predecessor by raising the stakes with an army of unstoppable mechanical automatons, but surprises by bridging the gap between the director’s more personal films and “popcorn” entertainment. Rating: **** ½
  4. Hellboy (2004) Mike Mignola’s comic book character springs to life, with del Toro’s inspired embellishments. Del Toro fought tooth and nail for Ron Perlman to play the title role – a battle that ultimately paid off. Tough to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role with such enthusiasm or conviction. John Hurt is memorable as Hellboy’s adoptive father and mentor Professor Broom, who sees his son’s redemptive qualities. Rating: ****
  5. Cronos (1993) Del Toro’s first feature film serves as a template for many of del Toro’s future projects, and contains many of the themes he would later explore, to greater effect. The title device holds the key to eternal life, but with a terrible price. The movie is also notable for establishing the director’s long professional relationship with Ron Perlman. Rating: *** ½  
  6. Mimic (1997) Through accelerated evolution, genetically engineered insects gain the ability to imitate human appearance. This ambitious film could have been great, but its production suffered from differences between a meddling film studio, which wanted a standard monster movie, and del Toro’s singular artistic vision. His director’s cut, though marred by a pat ending, is the closest thing we’ll likely get to what he intended. Rating: *** ½
  7. Blade II (2002) This sequel to 1998’s Blade gave del Toro to provide his own spin on vampires, involving an especially ugly and dangerous variant. There’s no time for romantic trysts with the undead here, just lots of action. While it’s a little short on substance, Blade II proved he had the chops to pull off an action-packed comic book movie, which would lead to bigger and better things. Rating: ***
  8. Pacific Rim (2013) Compared to several of his previous efforts, this movie was a step back for del Toro. I wanted to enjoy this more, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this brilliant director was deliberately under-achieving for the sake of box office expense. This great looking, but hollow exercise features lots of kaiju action, along with two-dimensional characters and over-the-top acting and dialogue to match. It’s a fun diversion, but not much else. Rating: ***


  1. You're sincere appreciation of del Toro's work shines through. He's truly a unique filmmaker. It breaks my heart that At The Mountains Of Madness and Hellboy III have yet to be made. I'd love to see him tackle one of the classic Universal monsters, too. Maybe Crimson Peak will scratch that itch.

    1. Thanks so much! This tribute was long overdue (It's been gestating for the past year or so), so I was relieved to finally get it out. Call me a dreamer, but I'm not giving up hope that one day we'll see both of his long-delayed projects.