Filmmaker Retrospective: The Fantastic Cinema of Guillermo Del Toro

5. Hellboy (2004)

Hellboy (2004)

Based on the series of comics by DC (written by Mike Mignola), Guillermo’s adaptation proved to be one of his biggest successes. “The film’s I’m proudest of most are the Hellboys because I don’t care if people like them or not, I just think they are absolutely beautiful to look at.” The film is steeped with other influences including designs and ideas from H.P Lovecraft (At the Mountains of Madness), Alexander Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo), and Christopher Fowler (Spanky). This creative landscape of influences both from the source material and Guillermo creates a visually distinct film.

Of Guillermo’s films, the two Hellboy films appeal to his eight year old self. In turn, the two films are excessive, “in the way that a gold-leaf covered Baroque church in Mexico is excessive. The whole statement is excess. And if you know me, and you know my life, and you know my house, I’m not exactly going for the Zen stuff. So the two Hellboys are very excessive. These films follow a vast tapestry of elements including monsters, gods, historical villains, steam punk, fairytales, elves, Nazi’s, and the list goes on.

One of the most interesting designs in the film (besides the hellhound Sammael) is for a villain named Kroenen. Kroenen is a mix of Nazi, Japanese mask, and Steam Punk which creates a unique and formidable adversary. Hellboy is an entertaining ride that gives the audience a taste of the diverse influences that saturate Guillermo’s work.


6. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)


Pan’s Labyrinth is perhaps the most visually stunning film in his career. From shades of emerald green to heavy blues and rich gold, Pan’s Labyrinth is a stunning film to look at. Every frame is beautifully constructed with care and attention. The film is a fairytale for adults, as the advertising stated upon its release. With equal part sumptuous imagery and disturbing violence, the film leaves a deep scar like mark on the viewer. While The Devil’s Backbone is ghost story within a film about the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairytale hidden in the same bleak world.

Whereas The Devil’s Backbone is colored in bright sepia esque tones with splashes of black and blue, Pan’s Labyrinth is dripping with dark colors and bleak atmosphere. The film follows a little girl named Ofelia whose mother marries a sadistic Spanish Captain named Vidal. What ensues is a grotesque and beautiful fairytale that uses classic motifs from folk stories, fairy tales, and classic children’s literature- with a strong theme of growing up through a rite (or rites) of passage.

The Captain is the real monster of the film, often committing horrific acts of murder and abuse to everyone around him. Vidal is a shoot and question later kind of guy. Meanwhile the Faun finds Ofelia and sets her on a path towards her destiny and growth. The Faun is beautifully designed, appearing less like the creature of myth and more like an ancient creature birthed from ancient elements rather than biological flesh.

Pan's Labyrinth

The film is littered with visual contrasts. For example, the real world is designed with straight lines while the fantasy world is curved. The reality is cold while the fantasy is warm. It offers a lovely contrast between the cold and violent world Ofelia is living in and the warm and mysterious world she drifts too. Once again the monsters are fantastic.

The biggest standout is the eerie Pale Man. A pale figure with loose skin, no eyes on its face, and an eyeball on each palm, it’s a design that is both unique and frightening. The Pale Man falls into the themes of excess and desire that leads to physical and psychological corruption in his films (perhaps used more notably in the film with the giant frog). In front of the Pale Man lurks a table full of plump red fruits and foods.

There is a rich amount of detail from the owls on Ofelia’s bed to the design of the windmill mimicking that of the gears in Captain Vidal’s watch. A Mandrake is also used in the film. Mandrake’s are a root and legend has it that if you nourish one, it will become a baby. This has its own complications in the film as fantasy struggles with reality. As children, human beings often hide from the fears of reality and slip into a world of fantasy to cope.

Whether its day dreaming or the games we play, human beings all have their own concepts of fantasy versus reality. Guillermo taps into this with many of his films but this is perhaps the most successful. Pan’s Labyrinth is very much about metamorphosis and in this case, art imitated life as Guillermo gained international acclaim for the film, allowing him to take on the projects he had been working towards.


7. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)

Hellboy 2 The Golden Army (2008)

Hellboy 2, depending on who you ask is one of those sequels that equals or rivals the original. In some regards, this may be the quintessential Del Toro film, primarily due to the various influences and ideas that appear in the film that were explored in his earlier works. This is a director who was growing in confidence and it shows. The film is once again filled with a vast array of stunning imagery both in color and in design. From cathedral like architecture to the bustling and diverse troll market, Hellboy 2 takes place less in the world of the comic and more in the world of Guillermo.

The elf Prince Nuada and his sister Nuala are the realization of a makeup design Guillermo had been trying to perfect since Cronos. He had started with Jesus Gris (Cronos), Santi (The ghost in The Devil’s Backbone), and Damaskinos (The vampire overlord in Blade 2) before finally getting the look he had been trying to get in those films.

The initial concept was to make a creature whose skin resembled marble. “It was not marble by then, it was ivory,” he states on the evolution of the design. Another striking image is that of the Angel of Death, a skeletal crested creature with huge wings scattered with eyes. A throwback to the symbolist images that inspire him and to the creature he designed for the yet to be made Mephistos Bridge.

Hellboy 2 The Golden Army

The film is viewed by him as a companion piece to Pan’s Labyrinth. This is due to the fact that he was working on both films at the same time, this lead to ideas from one film to be moved to the other and vice versa. Hellboy 2 has unique symbols (also found in Pan’s Labyrinth, though in Pan’s they’re more like runes), creatures, and twists of fairytale and fantasy monsters.

The tooth fairies aren’t the quiet little fairies that come into our rooms at night and gently remove our lost tooth, giving us a reward. The tooth fairies in this film are violent and hungry, creating a twist in the creature we know. The Golden Army also gave the film a mechanical clock gear component found in his films. At this point, the character had little to do with the Hellboy of the comic. It became Del Toro’s Hellboy and exists in a world inspired by the comics but teeming with Del Toro.


8. Pacific Rim (2013)


His most recent film is a kaiju film that pays homage and adds to the genre. The kaiju (Japanese for “Strange Creature”) in this film are designed with exquisite detail and are rendered in CGI. The Jaegers (German for “Hunter”) are massive robots built to fight the invasion of giant monsters. With stunning cinematography and fights (most notable is the Hong Kong sequence), Pacific Rim is an entertaining film. While not the deepest or most emotional of Guillermo’s Filmography, this movie knows what it is and isn’t trying to be anything more than B-Movie fun.

After leaving The Hobbit (giving the reins back to Peter Jackson) after the project stalled for financial reasons, he decided to make up for lost time (he lived in New Zealand for two years working on the project). Next he tried to make his passion project (At the Mountains of Madness) with director James Cameron (who wanted to produce).

Tom Cruise and Ron Perlman were cast in the project. It finally seemed that Guillermo would make a project that had been his head for fifteen years at that point. He spent months doing preparation including creature design, production design, location scouting, artwork, and storyboards for the entire film. However the studio decided to pull the plug at the last minute.

pacific rim

With that project on hiatus, Guillermo decided to make a film he had been working on with Legendary Pictures, that film was Pacific Rim. The project offered the perfect emotional escape for him after the troubles he experienced with The Hobbit and At the Mountains of Madness. The film is a director having a blast with his material.

It’s not preachy and it’s not trying to be deeper than it is. Pacific Rim is a live action motion picture embodiment of what kids have been doing with their monster action figures for years- fighting. Like those kids, Guillermo has been a director fighting voraciously for his craft and has created his own cinematic landscape that is simply Guillermo-esque.

Guillermo is now finishing up his haunted house film Crimson Peak which holds a strong cast including Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim and Sons of Anarchy), Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life and Zero Dark Thirty), Tom Hiddleston (Thor and Only Lovers Left Alive), and Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland and Stoker).

“I’m still not on the world stage. There are people who care for me. Still, the large majority of people have no idea who I am. I’m not a household name; I’m an acquired taste.” As Guillermo enters the future of his career, one thing remains certain; his films will continue to delve into our collective nightmares and dreamscapes.

Author Bio: Chris Thomas is a writer and aspiring filmmaker living on the mean streets of Franklin, Tennessee where he avoids attacks by ravenous hipsters with overpriced coffee. He dreams of one day having his own films on the big screen, so his dog will give him a much needed high five.