6. La Belle Et La Bete (1946) Dir. Jean Cocteau
This version of Beauty and the Beast imbues the fairy tale with sublime suggestion and wistful imagery. Belle is the youngest daughter of a merchant who picks a rose from the Beast’s garden. She offers herself as substitute for punishment but the Beast decides to have her stay in his enchanted castle instead of killing her. He falls in love with Belle and proposes marriage every night. Gradually, Belle’s repulsion turns to compassion and then love as she sees the kind heart beneath the terrifying appearance.
It should be no secret that this film with its charming special effects and humane treatment of a tragic creature has influenced del Toro. He calls Jean Cocteau’s most approachable film “the most perfect cinematic fable ever told. After Méliès, only Cocteau has understood that perfect simplicity is required to tell a fairytale – and that nothing but the power of pure cinema is needed to create awe and wonder.”
What is horrifying is also fragile. What is virtuous is also vaguely erotic. The movie harkens back to the reality of medieval fairy tales, which were not meant for children in the first place. Cocteau gives us this fantastic world with a murmur and a flourish, and in the reveal we see that the monstrous is mostly misunderstood. What has been cast away as separate and inhuman has its dignity restored.
This is the essential lesson of monsters in the tradition that del Toro continues. “If I go to a church, I’m more interested in the gargoyles than the saints. I really don’t care much about the idea of normal – that’s very abstract to me. I think that perfection is practically unattainable but imperfection is right at hand. So that’s why I love monsters: because they represent a side of us we should actually embrace and celebrate.”.
7. Time Bandits (1981) Dir. Terry Gilliam
When they set to work writing Time Bandits, Gilliam and Palin wanted to make a movie “exciting enough for adults and intelligent enough for children.” What they ended up with was a fantastic voyage in which everyday boy Kevin gets caught up with time-traveling dwarfs trying to loot treasure from the past. They have a map stolen from the Supreme Being, but the Evil Genius intends to steal it.
This satiric re-imagining of history and fantasy at odds with modernity’s techno-myopia would set the tone for future Terry Gilliam productions and bring Monty Python-esque humor to a younger generation.
Guillermo del Toro praises Terry Gilliam as “a living treasure, and we are squandering him foolishly with every film of his that remains unmade.” In Time Bandits, he chose camera angles intended to resemble the boy’s point of view. The dwarfs are fairy tale denizens, but they also stand at Kevin’s height. With their compulsive consumer habits, Kevin’s parents are the unknowing yin to the Evil Genius’s yang, which is production without sensible purpose.
Like the next director on this list, there is a surreal edge to Gilliam’s work. A surrealism targeted at undermining the status quo to propose a different way of seeing the world. Guillermo del Toro characterizes this tendency as Gilliam’s fabulist “and fierce, untamed imagination. He understands that ‘bad taste’ is the ultimate declaration of independence from the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.”
The ending is controversial for depicting the casual death of Kevin’s parents, entirely their own fault for not listening to Kevin’s warning. Hollywood executives and parents could not conceive of a children’s film ending on such a moment. But Gilliam had faith in the little boys and girls of the world who could laugh at such a clear moral as ‘listen to the kids’.
It remains a decent test of one’s own child-like integrity and determination, and del Toro is proud to report, “Seeing Time Bandits with my youngest daughter just two weeks ago, I was delighted when she laughed and rejoiced at the moment when Kevin’s parents explode into a cloud of smoke.”
8. Los Olvidados (1950) Dir. Luis Buñuel
Behind every beautiful city are poor children. Such is the opening declaration in this movie from the Mexican, middle period of Buñuel’s career. After the surrealist avant-garde projects like L’Age d’Or and before the enigmatic European productions like Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Buñuel made films in Mexico as part of that national cinema’s own golden age.
In Los Olvidados, Buñuel was able to re-establish his reputation in Euro art film circles by taking the dominate style of the era —Neorealism—and subverting it. It uses the same key features of Neorealism—outdoor locations, nonprofessional actors, low budget productions, and a focus on the working classes—to Del Toro calls it “one of the best depictions of childhood ever made.” It’s influence is most readily apparent in The Devil’s Backbone.
The story centers around El Jaibo, a juvenile prison escapee and gang leader in Mexico City’s slums. He gets Pedro, one of the younger boys in the gang, to help him find the man responsible for sending him to jail. Pedro gets so entangled in the criminal demimonde despite his attempts to raise himself and his family out of desperation.
Jaibo is the model for the central malignant presence in figures like Angel in Cronos, Jacinto in the Devil’s Backbone, Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth. Los Olvidados and The Devil’s Backbone are movies focused on the lives and relationships of boys shaped by trauma.
Guillermo del Toro praises Buñuel’s “surreal, anarchist spirit [that] cuts the deepest when used against a conventional genre or a commercial constraint. This example of the golden era of Mexican cinema packs a punch, never flinching in depicting innocence suffocating by rules and concrete buildings. Ruthless Dickens as regurgitated by an atheist.”
9. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) Dir. F.W. Murnau
One of the foundational silent films of gothic cinema, Nosferatu is not a horror movie that scares audiences; it haunts them. Based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this unauthorized adaptation bankrupted the studio that produced it when the family heirs filed suit.
All but one copy of the film was destroyed. The surviving copy was duplicated and the reputation of the film was carried on by a core group of fans, making it one of the earliest cult films. The biggest change from the book was the depiction of the vampire. Dracula was romantic, seductive, and Murnau’s Count Orlock is repulsive, other-worldly.
“Nosferatu is a symphony of fear indeed – and a symphony of perfect visual storytelling. The hypnotic nature of the film engrosses the audience into a trance. Along with Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), it’s one of the two pillars for every vampiric film ever made. Whereas Dreyer concerns himself with the spiritual, Murnau’s film has a tangible, physical component of corruption that makes evil immediate and real.”
Monster movies have a special place in the artistic orientation of del Toro. His deeply literary sensibility invests the ghouls of gothic horror with a soulful nuance. In the case of Nosferatu, who menaces the screen more often than appearing on it, we can see the distinction del Toro adapted to his own project. He once said, “My ideal film would have no dialog; it would just be a camera implicating the viewer in the action.” This aspiration is clearly descended from Murnau’s Count Orlock.
10. Planet of the Apes (1968) Dir. Franklin Schaffner
Based on the 1963 French novel La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle, the film introduced new prosthetic makeup techniques and launched a sci-fi franchise that continues to this day. When a crew of astronauts crash on a plant where talking apes have evolved to be the dominate species, George Taylor (Charlton Heston) must find the origins of this ape society to prove that he’s not like the mute, uncultured humans that the apes abuse.
With the help of a few ape comrades, he escapes Ape City into the Forbidden Zone. Pursued by Dr. Zaius, they discover a cave and artifacts from a more advanced human society. Taylor continues deeper into the Zone to find out what happened, but Dr. Zaius warns him that he may not like what he finds.
Before he was a director, del Toro was a makeup artist. He ran his own company for nearly ten years doing the makeup special effects for Mexican productions before he started work on Cronos. While he certainly would have a professional appreciation for the work done in Planet of the Apes, the influence it had on him goes farther back.
In what has become a common origin story among directors of a certain generation, del Toro first got into moviemaking by playing with his dad’s Super 8 camera. “Back then you could buy a Super 8 version of Star Wars or a Hammer horror film. I bought Boris Karloff movies—The Curse of the Crimson Altar, The Raven—and a Planet of the Apes. I must have been 7 or 8.”
A burn caused by playing the movie in reverse too much required the purchase of a splicer to repair it. This was the young del Toro’s introduction to editing. But the real moment came when he decided to make an action movie with his Planet of the Apes figurines. “You would ship the film to Kodak and a week later it would come back developed. When I opened that envelope and I projected that first Super 8 reel, something happened that was absolutely life changing. I saw images on the screen like I had seen in the Planet of the Apes Super 8 or The Raven, and they were mine. I cannot explain it except that it was the best film experience I’ve ever had. It’s never been topped. I got the right first kiss.”
From first kiss to being courted by Hollywood and beyond, cinema has never given Guillermo del Toro his walking papers. As a genrist, his 8 feature films are brilliant reinventions of the tropes of fantasy and horror.
At the core of every film, except Mimic which he disowned after the studio re-cut it, there is an exuberant passion—a passion for terror and thrills, sweetness and sublimity. His ninth feature, Crimson Peak, will be a return to the gothic roots of this passion. What lies beyond remains unspeakable.