When explaining why he dropped out of film school, Paul Thomas Anderson said “My film making education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and mags…Film school is a complete con, because the information is out there if you want it.”
Whatever one’s motivation, the joy of uncovering the lineage of a favorite director by watching the films that inspired him or her adds another layer of pleasure to the pursuit of excellent movies. To that end, let’s look at the unofficial ancestors: a list of films that influenced great directors.
Guillermo Del Toro keeps his family life private and his professional inspiration public. As a longtime devotee of fantasy, in both its darker and innocent manifestations, Del Toro has climbed into the limelight through an apprenticeship as a special makeup effects artist and film critic. “I think I have a very blue-collar attitude to filmmaking, I really roll my sleeves up and get my hands dirty.” Now he produces, writes screenplays, and directs some of the most inventive Gothic tales of monsters, robots, and children of our time.
He is one of the most active Mexican filmmakers working in Hollywood today. His name is attached in one way or another to a multitude of projects in varying stages of development. His first film, 1993’s Cronos is still on of his favorites, along with Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim. Interestingly, he does not consider himself to be an auteur director, calling the auteur theory “inaccurate and dangerous.”
Born in Guadalajara, Guillermo del Toro grew up reading comic books, watching classic horror films, going to confession. He would come to reject the Catholicism of his upbringing but make of the imagination the cathedrals of his worship. What follows are ten films that showed Del Toro the way.
1. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) Dir. Victor Erice
In an allegorical depiction of Francoist Spain after the Civil War, a young girl named Ana is moved by her experience of seeing the 1931 horror classic Frankenstein. The rest of the family is caught up in their own affairs, while Ana tends to an escaped Republican soldier. After the Fascists kill him and Ana’s involvement is discovered by her father, she flees into a night where dream and waking are indistinguishable.
Del Toro has said, “The Spirit of the Beehive is a seminal movie for me. I even modeled the girl in Cronos exactly on Ana Torrent. That movie, along with the films of Buñuel and the films of Hitchcock, is almost apart of my genetic makeup, buried deep in my DNA.”
The child’s gaze dominates the storytelling in The Spirit of the Beehive, and from this we see clear antecedents to The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Both of those named films also focus on the closing of the Spanish Civil War, and include intertextual links with classic horror genres, Spanish art and literature.
Like Spirit of the Beehive, the remoteness of the orphanage in The Devil’s Backbone and the Fascist outpost in Pan’s Labyrinth set the action between a specific historical moment and the timeless experience of children. Cut off from contact with the wider world, the juvenal main characters in each movie create a self-reflecting reality that veers between the harsh realities of Fascist Spain and the fabulist world of their own subjectivity.
These films take a spiritual approach to fantasy. Erice and Del Toro present the child’s world unsentimentally but still imbued with the capacity to find liberation from a adult world that denies their agency. By inflecting this style of fantasy with horror, they give meaning to the brutal rites of passage their child characters must endure.
2. Shadow of a Doubt (1943) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Joseph Cotton plays the vampiric Uncle Charlie in this worm-in-the-apple thriller from Hitchcock’s war years. Uncle Charlie escapes trouble on the east coast by visiting his relatives in Santa Rosa, California. In this sleepy, orderly, boringly bourgeois town, Uncle Charlie’s charming demeanor effectively conceals his nefarious past. His niece, also called Charlie, is the only one to sense that all is not right with Uncle Charlie.
Guillermo del Toro calls Shadow of a Doubt “one of the perfect Hitchcocks – the very first true American Gothic he made, and an eerie portrait of the world of the past being transformed by the touch of evil. As quintessentially American as Edward Hopper or Harper Lee.” He would use a similar ploy of undermining the respectability of the bourgeois home in Cronos, and like Shadow of Doubt’s hero’s funeral for Uncle Charlie, del Toro works some irony into his endings.
In his 20s, Del Toro wrote a book on Hitchcock. Some of the opinions are out-of-date with del Toro now, but the act of writing helped to solidify his impressions of Hitchcock and his influence on del Toro’s later creative efforts. With a little tongue-in-cheek, del Toro reveres Hitchcock thusly, “I revisit Hitchcock’s films more than I do those of any other filmmaker, except perhaps Buñuel. I visit them like the faithful visit the Ganges. I bathe in Hitchcock, the infinite and merciful.”
Bringing his macabre sensibility to bear on the quintessential small town America setting of Santa Rosa in the 40s, Hitchcock used the ordinary as a starting point to explore darkness. He took the supernatural out of horror to show that it can be supremely natural, if uncanny.
Uncle Charlie is regularly shown to be similar to Dracula, with his strong grip, the way he can appear and disappear when needed, his seductive powers, and his freedom with money. Even the fact that he begins the story in Philadelphia plays on the old-hat comparison of Pennsylvania with Transylvania.
3. Frankenstein (1931) Dir. James Whale
One of the foundational pictures in Universal Studio’s legacy, the 1931 version of Frankenstein destroyed the work of Mary Shelley to replace it with something much more pop-cultural. In this iconic monster movie, Dr. Henry Frankenstein is obsessed with reanimation as a way to achieve the status of a god. He assembles a creature from stolen body parts from the dead with the help of his hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (not to be renamed Igor until later iterations of the franchise).
Boris Karloff plays the monster, who is confused by the sudden onset of life and escapes into the countryside. Dr. Frankenstein seeks out his creation and confronts the destruction it leaves in it’s wake.
“Frankenstein is a film – and a tale – that touches the very essence of what I am and all that I believe in. Whale’s superb eye and tonal command are matched by a Karloff performance that manages to transmit both fragility and power.” Because this is a Hollywood movie, the monster’s anti-social acts of destruction are explained away by Fritz the assistant’s blunder of stealing a criminal’s brain for the creature.
Modern fans tend to forget this facile detail and instead champion Frankenstein for its scenes where the monster is presented as human and vulnerable—essentially the qualities from the book that survived the adaptation.
Del Toro has describes his own sensibility around this restitution of the monster. “Frankly, I think that everything we try to deny about our bodies and our lives – about being fallible and mortal, that we’re going to rot, and that our armpits smell, that we are imperfect, that we sin and screw up – all these are the things that actually make us human. And that’s why I try to make the monsters the heroes in my movies.”
Guillermo del Toro is scheduled to direct a remake of Frankenstein, but it has yet to enter development. The reason for that according to del Toro is that he’s “a chicken shit”. It is a dream of his since childhood to make a Frankenstein movie, and when he does summon the courage to do it, he plans to drop all other projects for 3 years to focus on making the most of it.
4. Ran (1985) Dir. Akira Kurosawa
A late-life masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa that combines several of his themes in a new, insightful ways. While it may be a transposition of Shakespeare’s King Lear to 16th century Japan, the secret story of Ran is the threat of nuclear apocalypse, which Kurosawa as an ever-present threat that could be seen in the many acts of bad faith by countries and leaders. Ran is an examination of war’s folly and the erosion of all familial ties when the thirst for power leads to betrayal.
Where the samurai films of Kurosawa’s early career were full of lusty life, Ran is dispassionate, calculated to please the eye but leave the heart unscathed as factions maneuver for dominance in a world without moral center. The battles are predominately framed from a distance, so that the brave warriors have no clear distinction from the cowards.
In older films, Kurosawa perfected a style of production for maximum effect on audience identification. With three simultaneous cameras and long lenses that allowed the actors a vast area of movement, Kurosawa could edit together a cinematic experience that was precise, algebraic, and furious. He abandons this procedure in Ran, where everything is mostly depicted from a single angle, often in continuous takes, and the editing so discreetly rendered as to draw no special notice from viewers.
Guillermo del Toro is a fan of Kurosawa’s films. The reason Ran is our pick for the ten influential films is Hidetora, the father whose decision to divide his kingdom among his sons begins the central conflict of the film. Like his English model, King Lear, Hidetora becomes a tragic figure when he is betrayed by his sons almost at the onset of the film.
As the story develops, however, we come to realize the sheer volume of blood and belligerence he has had to exert to make the kingdom he hands over to his progeny. He is a devoted father and a monster, and that is exactly the sort of ambivalence in presentation that drives del Toro’s own nuanced perspective of villains, monsters, and supra-human characters in his movies.
Of some additional interest is Ishiro Honda, who helped his friend Kurosawa as an associate director on Ran. He is famous for directing the original Godzilla, and several massive monster movie follow-ups. His larger-than-life style worked well in Ran, and del Toro’s own fondness for Japanese monsters that can smash whole cities led him to create Pacific Rim.
5. Fanny and Alexander (1982) Dir. Ingmar Bergman
The titular Fanny and Alexander begin this story as the youthful innocent beneficiaries of the eccentric and warm Ekdahl household in the early twentieth century.
Their youthful perspective is the carry-over perspective as they move to the ascetic home of their mother’s new husband when their theatre director father dies. The bishop step-father has a strict chancery where the children suffer oppression. The father’s ghost appears, and a local Jewish merchant named Isaac, who is the grandmother’s lover, becomes the children’s means of escape.
This is an unusual entry in Bergman’s oeuvre of films. He intended Fanny and Alexander to be his swan song, a sentimental and autobiographical film that marries his usual melancholy and vivid emotional clarity with the joy of childhood and the sensuality of childish imagination.
In planning the production, he wrote, “By playing, I can overcome the anguish, loosen the tension, and triumph over destruction. I want at last to show the joy that I carry within me in spite of everything, joy that I have so seldom and so poorly given life to in my work. Being able to portray energy and drive, capability for living, kindness. That wouldn’t be so bad, for once.”
The children’s world is introduced way of the lantern theatre toy Alexander plays with at the beginning of the film. From this, a world of dreams, fantasy, and nightmare emerges. Bergman was always a believer in the child-perspective. It is reflected in many of his films and in his journals he claimed that filmmaking “has its roots deep down in the world of childhood, the lowest floor of my workshop.”
Ingmar Bergman is remembered as a profound director. One who cuts to the bone of life without pardon or excuse. Aside from this Bergman, there is another filmmaker who mesmerized audiences with his fabulist perspective on the world as it appears and what lies beneath appearances.
About Fanny and Alexander, del Toro is candid. “Fanny and Alexander is Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, and John Calvin rolled into one.” The fantastical imagery and the uncanny sensibility of the film makes it essential viewing for del Toro fans.