Filmmaker Retrospective: The Fantastic Cinema of Guillermo Del Toro
From the dawn of mankind, human beings have used art, myth, and nightmare to challenge fears and to express them. This is the world of myth, fantasy, and horror that Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro works from. Del Toro takes the monsters that haunt our psyches and makes them terrifying and misunderstood. The monster is an outsider peering into the often troubling and dark world we inhabit. However, that monster is often times an extension of our selves.
Del Toro often sets his horror and fantasy stories in real world settings to make them accessible and believable. Whether it’s in 1940’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War or a modern cityscape in America, Mexico, or Europe, Del Toro’s films exist in a world that takes reality and exposes the cracks, grit, and nightmares that lurk in the shadows. This is part of what makes his style unique and engaging.
His films display a Kubrick-esque attention to detail. Each shot is filled with distinct color choices, lighting, art, props, and history that make his films more real and lived in. His films are often filled with hues of blue, yellow, red, and black enabling the viewer to get a sense of death, decay, darkness, and other worldliness. Books are filled with unique calligraphy, imagery, and the paper looks aged in his films. Meals can seem enticing and repulsive depending on the moment for the character.
Del Toro is aware that mankind is often a victim to desire and excess. One of the best examples of this is in Del Toro’s hauntingly beautiful Pan’s Labyrinth. Without giving much away, a young girl is tempted into eating plump grapes that look as if they are filled with succulent juices and the consequence is startling.
Del Toro’s films have always dealt with the topics of decay and excess. How human desire for food, sex, and power can lead us down a dark path that we may not recover from. The humans and monsters often parallel one another. For example in Blade 2, the motives of Blade and Nomak are similar, but whereas Blade is fighting for a greater good, Nomak is fighting for revenge. The monsters in his films are often dark reflections of the humans they creep around.
Del Toro’s work is soaked in artistry both cinematic and artistic. An artist himself, Del Toro often trudges through his own nightmares and dreamscapes for inspiration. In the book Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions, his notebooks are filled with rich paintings, notes, and ideas that seep into his films.
Reading through the book enables one to enter the mind of a man who turned his obsessions into a celebrated career. From the symbolist artwork of Francisco Goya to the cinema of Stanley Kubrick, Del Toro’s career has been a potpourri of various artistic and literary themes clashing to create something new.
He revels in the macabre and monstrous, and in doing so; he projects our fears onto film and forces us to confront the monsters outside and within us. For the past twenty years, he has taken viewers on a journey through damp underground tunnels drenched in water and darkness, labyrinths of slick moss and jagged rock, and worlds that linger in reality and in the primeval nightmares and dreamscapes that we desperately try to escape in our minds.
Horror lingers in every corner of the world. It is for this reason that horror, myth, and fantasy are the oldest stories ever told. These stories not only work as morality plays or explorations into fear, but they also work because they help light the tunnels of darkness that surround us all.
From a curious and strange child in Guadalajara, Mexico to a filmmaker whose style has paved way for a new generation of imaginative and horror hungry filmmakers, Del Toro has made nightmares a thing of ethereal cinematic beauty that invites us in and makes us turn on the lights. Only by facing our fears can we overcome them.
Whether it’s a boy confronting a ghost in The Devil’s Backbone or a granddaughter confronting death and immortality as her grandfather becomes a monster in Cronos, the films of Del Toro shed light into a pit of fears and ideologies that threaten to consume those that dive in.
1. Cronos (1993)
The debut film of Guillermo Del Toro is on its surface a vampire film. However, when one peels back the layers, they discover that Cronos is ultimately about a little girl (Aurora) and her relationship with her dying grandfather (Jesus). Cronos is a film that has great special effects and an interesting conception of vampirism, but it also has a wonderful story with well developed characters at its core.
Cronos is about an aging antiques dealer named Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) and his loving granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath). Jesus is infected with immortality by an ancient insect locked inside a mechanical golden scarab. This infection causes Jesus to become a pale monster that drinks blood and dwells in darkness to stay alive. At the same time a merciless thug named Angel (Ron Perlman) serves his wealthy uncle in an effort to retrieve the scarab.
The film delicately balances macabre themes with an emotionally resonant story of love, death, and the cost of immortality. This film lays the groundwork for Del Toro’s Filmography with his trademarks of childhood curiosity, dark themes, monsters, decay, power, corruption, and sacrifice. Del Toro’s color palette is also present in this film with shades of blue, yellow, black and red seeping into the frame. This film marks the beginning of the working relationship between Del Toro and his muse Ron Perlman.
2. Mimic (1997)
His next film marks a personal and creative stepping stone for the career and life of Del Toro. Mimic is about an epidemiologist (Mira Sorvino) who accidentally alters the genetic code of cockroaches creating evolved six foot tall creatures that mimic the appearance of human beings. The plot is very much something that could have been taken from an “Atomic Age Horror/ Science Fiction” film, however, Del Toro inserts beauty and craft into the film.
Unfortunately, this film was ironically about a creature trying to become something it’s not, which mirrored his attempt to make a studio film as a studio director, which lead to Mimic becoming his biggest disappointment. Due to a control hungry studio, many of Guillermo’s scenes were recut with scenes filmed by a different director. The experience was very painful and would have broken down a director less passionate and committed to their vision.
“This is the struggle you have as an artist. Hellboy in Hellboy 2, when he shoots the Elemental, he’s shooting it because he wants people to like him. He goes ‘Well, okay, I’m going to do the right thing for these guys to like me because they don’t like me.’ And he comes out and delivers the baby like, ‘I did a great thing’ and they boo him and throw stones at him. As an artist I’ve gone through that. You say, ’Okay, I’m going to do what people like.’ I go and do a commercial movie like Mimic and it’s a huge hurt in my life. Then when you go and do the hard choice, there’s a reward in there.” – Guillermo Del Toro
In 2011, Guillermo released a “Director’s Cut” of the film that unleashes his original vision. The 2011 version is filled with his usual trademark of beautifully haunting images and powerful scenes that failed to appear in the 1997 theatrical release. Both films are drenched in blue and gold. The film is essentially about evolution and retains an insect component present in Cronos.
Insects are both elegantly complex creatures that possess beauty but are also soulless automatons in nature, according to him. It is this contrast that he uses to compare insects and human beings and the fundamental differences that divide them. Mimic deals with themes of fertility, curiosity, alienation, sympathy, conformity, and identity. Many of those themes the director found himself struggling with at that time in his life.
3. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
In 2001, Guillermo returned to his independent roots to direct his next Spanish language horror story. After the hardships he went through with Mimic, Guillermo felt his career was over. That was until he received help from another filmmaker with a unique style, Pedro Almodovar (Talk to Her, All About My Mother, Broken Embraces, & Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to name a few). With a fellow filmmaker producing, Guillermo was ready to make a distinct film.
Set in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), The Devil’s Backbone takes place at an orphanage and from there a mysterious and tragic ghost story takes shape. The film encapsulates what makes Guillermo’s films unique and accessible. His theme of choice and consequence, restraint as a value, and keeping your identity when faced with horror and desperation become clearer and more realized in this film. The Devil’s Backbone is filled with pouring rain, dark corridors, sun baked earth, and images of decay (the ghost and the bomb).
“I seriously think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. It’s not a visually flamboyant movie, but it’s incredibly minutely constructed visually. Pan’s Labyrinth is more like pageantry; it is very gorgeous to look at. But I think Devil’s Backbone is almost like a sepia illustration.”
4. Blade 2 (2002)
Before being able to work on Hellboy, Guillermo was asked if he could do Blade 2. He was reluctant at first. However as a fan of the original, he knew he didn’t want to take the film on unless he could find the heart and soul of the project. When he met with screenwriter David S. Goyer and star Wesley Snipes for the film, he proposed a new kind of vampire, horrifying new creatures that didn’t resemble any other creature of the night that came before. These new creatures were given the name Reapers. He took inspiration from the Romanian Strigoi to create his new monsters.
The idea for the Reapers not only came from the strigoi, but from an early mechanism he had for the vampirism in Cronos and an unsuccessful pitch for I Am Legend. Part of what makes the Reapers so refreshing is that they feed on both human and vampire. The film also introduces a compelling and tragic villain named Novak who is a Reaper.
Blade 2 features slick fast paced action, tense set pieces, fine detail, and blood. From pools and baths of blood to splashes of blood squirting out of body parts, Blade 2 is soaked in red. On an episode of Robert Rodriguez’s The Director’s Chair, Guillermo says this about the effects in the film, “Blade 2 features some of the best (reapers, autopsy, more) and worst (CGI fights, burning effects, more) effects in film.” The film is far from perfect, but it remains an entertaining and unique blockbuster film.
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