Director Retrospective: Guillermo del Toro
After a break for traveling and visiting family and not watching many movies, it’s time for another retrospective in my ongoing project. And hot off the heels of declaring his most recent film as my favorite of 2017 (so far) and his win for “Best Director” at the Golden Globes, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at the filmography of one of my fave directors working today: Guillermo del Toro.
The Big List
So far, I’ve seen all 10 feature-length films directed by Guillermo del Toro. Here’s the list: Cronos (1993); Mimic (1997); The Devil’s Backbone (2001); Blade II (2002); Hellboy (2004); Pan’s Labyrinth (2006); Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008); Pacific Rim (2013); Crimson Peak (2015); The Shape of Water (2017).
The Top Five
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – The battle for the #1 spot was surprisingly close — something I wouldn’t have predicted just a month ago. However, in the end, I went with the del Toro movie that I’ve seen most often over the years: Pan’s Labyrinth. For those who (somehow) haven’t seen it, Pan’s Labyrinth follows a young girl (Ofelia), who, along with her pregnant mother (Carmen), moves to the home of her ruthless, fascist stepfather (Capt. Vidal) — only to discover that she must undertake a quest, at the behest of Pan, to regain her place in a mythical kingdom. My memory of first seeing this film in Nashville’s Belcourt Theater in 2006 is one of the most vivid movie-watching memories — not only because of the brilliance of the movie but also because of the reaction of the audience. [This film was largely marketed as a “fantasy” film, kind of like Alice in Wonderland. Thus, there were a LOT of young children in the audience, which is problematic considering that this is definitely not your standard children’s film — something that we all discovered within the first half-hour when Vidal gratuitously caves-in another man’s face in with a beer bottle. There were kids in the theater who understandably started crying, and it was pretty messed up.] In a directorial career that features some amazing visuals, Pan’s Labyrinth has some of del Toro’s best and most iconic use of light and shadow; and the mythic creatures — namely, Pan and The Pale Man (both played fantastically by Doug Jones) — are stunning and terrifying in their own unique ways. An undeniable high watermark for fantasy filmmaking, Pan’s Labyrinth ought to be required viewing for anyone interested in film, fairy tales, coming-of-age stories, etc.
The Shape of Water (2017) – Guillermo del Toro’s most recent movie is, as it turns out, also arguably the greatest movie of his career. In fact, I seriously considered The Shape of Water for the #1 spot in this list. [In the end, I went with Pan’s Labyrinth, which I’ve had a decade to watch and think about; but I could easily see this film becoming my favorite del Toro film in a couple years.] Trying to categorize The Shape of Water in terms of genre is just pointless — it’s your typical “historical political-satire fantasy romance sci-fi monster-horror spy-thriller comedy (with a musical number).” Whaaaaaaat?!? Set during the Cold War, the story follows a lonely mute custodian (Eliza), who interacts with her talkative coworker (Zelda) and her closeted artist neighbor (Giles) in a relatively predictable daily existence — that is, until the science lab where she works is changed with the arrival of a cruel federal agent (Strickland), a scientist with a secret (Hoffstetler), and an anthorpomorphic fish-man (who might also be a god). And things go on from there. Anyone familiar with del Toro’s work will be unsurpised to learn that the visuals are exquisitely rendered here — from the set-design to the creature-design, from the use of color to the use of subtitles, etc. However, as great as the visuals are, the film ultimately triumphs because of the stellar cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlberg, and Doug Jones. The casting aspect for the film deserves some serious respect for this work because I honestly cannot remember the last film in which each and every single character was, to my mind, cast perfectly — to the point that I can’t imagine any other actors performing any of these roles. The lead character, Eliza, is one of the fiercest and most determined characters (let alone, female characters) in recent memory; and I’m intrigued that her muteness isn’t used as a “flaw” here or as something that limits her. If anything, the opposite seems true: she uses her muteness to her advantage and she is an active communicator. [Two of the most memorable scenes from the film deal with this issue — one where she convinces Jenkins’s character to vocalize her signing so as to persuade him of the righteousness of their cause, and another where she gives Shannon’s character one of the best “FUCK YOUs” of all time. Both scenes are superb.] The Shape of Water is beautiful, funny, tense, moving, etc. — basically everything that you want when you go to the movies. Go and see it.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001) – The third film in del Toro’s filmography is, I would argue, a cinematic masterpiece. Set during the Spanish Civil War, The Devil’s Backbone focuses on a group of individuals living/working in a home for boys who have been orphaned as a result of the conflict. In some ways, this is a classic coming-of-age narrative, where our main character (Carlos) attempts to find his place within a new community and among a group of shady characters (some of whom have stakes in the war, some of whom are romantically linked, etc.). Of course, because of the political and historical context, it’s also a war film. Oh, also…the orphanage is haunted. Ha ha! So…yeah, it’s a ghost / horror film too. [The way that it mixes these characteristics makes it a clear companion piece to del Toro’s later film, Pan’s Labyrinth.] What differentiates The Devil’s Backbone from your standard ghost story is the degree to which viewers are asked to identify with the ghost. Like our main character, the ghost (Santi) is a young boy (in spirit) who gets sad, frightened, etc. Though his appearance is horrifying with the blood that continues to leak from his wounded skull, we are meant to sympathize with this “monster” who is a victim of circumstances far beyond his control or understanding. Thankfully, too, it doesn’t speak down to its child characters but views them as people and legitimizes their dreams and their fears. As mentioned earlier, I think that The Devil’s Backbone is an unmitigated horror masterpiece and one that is woefully underrated and under-viewed among casual audiences. If you like Pan’s Labyrinth, then you should be sure to watch this film as well for a slightly different (i.e. masculine) riff on the themes of del Toro’s later work.
Cronos (1993) – del Toro’s first feature-length film, Cronos is a vampire film (of sorts) and one that explores the pros and cons of “everlasting life.” An elderly antiques dealer and his granddaughter (played by the late Federico Luppi and Tamara Shanath, respectively) accidentally discover an ancient clock…egg…device…thing hidden in an old statue. It turns out that this mechanical device was created by a brilliant alchemist who was obsessed with discovering how to prolong life indefinitely. As Luppi’s character succumbs to the temptations of the strange device and his body begins to transform in some pretty disturbing ways, he must also contend with an eccentric, wealthy businessman and his violent nephew (played by Claudio Brook and Ron Perlman), who want the device for themselves. As mentioned earlier, while the device (powered by insect blood…yeah…just roll with it) promises eternal life, it does not promise eternal youth or humanity, as the characters discover. On the surface, this is a “monster” movie; however, like a lot of other del Toro’s films, there’s a warmth here among the various characters so that, at its heart, Cronos is a film about growing old and losing the ones that we love (and ourselves) with the passage of time and how/if we might ever come to grips with that reality. It’s a small film and rough around the edges, as one might expect from a director’s first film; however, it’s also remarkably self-assured in its weirdness and its sentiments. One of del Toro’s most overlooked movies among casual, English-speaking audiences, Cronos is a film that I’d definitely recommend if you’re a fan of horror, vampire texts, etc.
Pacific Rim (2013) – Set in the near-future in a world on the verge of cataclysm, Pacific Rim is a movie about Mechs versus Kaiju. That’s it. There’s some other stuff here: family, empathy, redemption, sacrifice, yada yada yada. This is a movie about giant robots fighting giant, fucking monsters. The end. There are, of course, some who don’t like Pacific Rim. Those people are stupid; they probably hate bacon, naps, and kittens. The film features a solid cast — e.g. Charlie Hunnam (who I’m not usually a fan of, though who changed my mind a bit with the recent The Lost City of Z…checkout that film if you get a chance), Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, and Ron Perlman. Where else are you going to find a movie where someone literally “cancels the apocalypse”? And yet, of course he does because that’s the kind of movie we’re watching here. [Btw…there are precisely three actors working today who could have delivered that line, and they’re all named Idris Elba. My only regret about Pacific Rim is that I would’ve loved to seen some kind of twist where Elba drank some elixir, grew to the size of a skyscraper (so…like a few extra feet), and then fought those kaiju mano-a-mano. That definitely needed to happen, but alas…] The creature designs are great, as you’d expect from a del Toro film, there are some wonderfully constructed shots, and the robots are bonkers. [Because del Toro is totally a maniac, he actually built a life-sized robot cockpit to film those scenes — one that would rise, drop, shake, explode, or whatever so that the actors could experience what it might be like to actually pilot a giant robot during a fight. *sigh*] Just a fun movie. The kind of movie that other fun movies watch when they’re trying to forget their troubles.
The Underrated One
I haven’t mentioned Hellboy or Hellboy II: The Golden Army yet, and both of those films are somewhat forgotten in his larger oeuvre and in the larger explosion of superhero genre films. [Both films feature great design elements, and Ron Perlman is fantastic as the eponymous lead.] But I’m actually going to praise another film that I felt like was a bit underrated by critics and pretty much completely ignored/disliked by audiences: Crimson Peak (2015). Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, and Jim Beaver, the story focuses on a young woman (played by Wasikowska), who marries a handsome but mysterious man (Hiddleston) — only to discover that maybe not everything is as rosy as it first appears. Much of the criticism about Crimson Peak revolves around pace — as it’s certainly a slow film and, honestly, probably a little too long for its own good. However, perhaps because I was reading comps stuff (notably Gothic novels and Romanticism and horror stories) around the same time that I saw the film, I enjoyed it. To me, this is very much in the “gothic” mode of horror with its young heroine, mysterious man with a damaged soul, the once-proud family that’s fallen on hard times, the decrepit mansion, the bumps in the night, the red herrings, etc. etc. etc. The performances here are solid, but the real standout is del Toro’s visuals — particularly in terms of set-design, costuming, color usage, and ghost design. [Really…my only critique from a “gothic” standpoint is that the very, very end should’ve probably been handled differently from a storytelling perspective.] But if you like a slower, more atmospheric, old-school type horror film like The Innocents, The Haunting, The Others, etc., then you’ll probably appreciate this movie as well.
The One to Avoid
First off, I don’t think there are any “bad” films by Guillermo del Toro. Even those films that don’t work as well as the others (usually from a narrative or characterization standpoint) are worth seeing by virtue of their visuals. [After all, film is a visual medium.] For me, there are two real contenders here. Blade II was probably most American viewers’ introduction to del Toro’s work, which is unfortunate. There are some solid scenes in Blade II, and I think that Blade (as a character) is an interesting one with lots of potential, though the characterization and the plot of the film never really advance in this film toward something as interesting as its predecessor. [I actually think that the original Blade is underrated as a “superhero film.” It’s flawed but it also pushed the genre forward at a time when it was needed.] That said, I do think that the creature design of the new “reaper” vampire in Blade II — i.e. a vampire that eats other vampires — is a fun idea and pretty horrifying. So I think that, if there was one del Toro film that you could probably skip, I’d recommend skipping Mimic (1997). A movie about giant, predatory, evolving cockroaches living beneath New York City, there’s a certain B-movie charm to Mimic so that one can watch the film and enjoy it well enough for what it is. It’s not a great film and I wouldn’t even call it “good,” but it’s also not without its appeals. That said, it’s nestled between two far better movies in del Toro’s oeuvre — Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone — and it can’t hope to even compete with them. This pick isn’t so much a “movie to avoid” as it is a “movie to not worry about if you miss,” if that makes sense.
The Place to Start
Guillermo del Toro’s films can be a bit of an acquired taste, depending on your preferences toward genres like horror, fantasy, science-fiction, fairy-tales, romance, etc. If you’re going to give him a shot, I’d start with his most recent film: The Shape of Water (2017). Not only is this one of his best films, it’s also a bit more up-tempo and immediately accessible than his other great films, which feel slower and more deliberate in their build. I’d recommend beginning with The Shape of Water, then moving into Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone (probably in that order), and then following that up with something like Pacific Rim (sci-fi), Hellboy (superhero), or Cronos (horror) — depending on which genre of film you like most.
The Final Word
As I said earlier, I’m a big fan of del Toro’s films. Obviously, I appreciate the craft of them from them from a technical and visual standpoint; however, I most admire the care that puts toward his creatures and the fact that he loves and embraces those genres that are so often looked down upon as unworthy of “prestige” or seen as “less-than” by those in positions of (critical) power. He makes films that appeal to the simultaneous beauty and horror, those things that we are captivated by and afraid of. From my perspective, he’s made three filmic “masterpieces” — Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, and The Devil’s Backbone — that are worthy of preservation, and I hope that he keeps making movies for as long as he is able.