Myths and Monsters: The Films of Guillermo del Toro

For Guillermo del Toro, it was what lay beneath the bed, behind the curtain, or in the darkness that made him tick as a child and that inspires him creatively as a writer and director today. As a self-confessed lover of the macabre, del Toro surrounds himself with art, imagery, sculptures and collections of all that feeds his obsession with monsters and ghouls, using this to fuel his imagination.

His personal assortment of curiosities are held within the walls of Bleak House, the ultimate fan collection, a place where he can both work and take inspiration.

Surrounded by the ghostly though he may be, it’s in this darkness that he finds beauty and reflects this onto his own works, so often haunting and yet stunningly shot and designed. Being an accomplished artist he sketches and creates his monsters on the page first in his notebooks before bringing them to life in film using an array of practical effects.

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But these are not your garden variety creatures and contraptions that del Toro creates. Leaning on his encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of horror he creates nods towards his favourite art, famous beasts and the films which have provided him with his inspiration. His creations drive his stories, oftentimes tapping into the audience’s most primal fears and the dangers of the world which we live in.

“It would be a cliché to say that, because I am a Mexican, I see death in a certain way. But I have seen more than my share of corpses, certainly more than the average First World guy. I worked for months next to a morgue that I had to go through to get to work. I’ve seen people being shot; I’ve had guns put to my head; I’ve seen people burnt alive, stabbed, decapitated … because Mexico is still a very violent place. So I do think that some of that element in my films comes from a Mexican sensibility.”

Though many of del Toro’s films weave dark tales, his use of colour brings a vibrancy to proceedings, often working with his longterm collaborator, director of photography Guillermo Navarro to add visual depth to his films, letting the image tell the story as much as the dialogue in any given scene.

Over the years del Toro has intertwined his more personal Spanish-language films with larger scale American-funded movies. Whilst he has struck proverbial gold with his more intimate stories, his break into Hollywood filmmaking was not without its trials, helping to shape his approach to projects later in his career, and eventually leading to his Oscar successes with The Shape of Water.

Without any further ado, let’s take a deep dive into the man’s cinematic works:

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10) Mimic (1997)

Mimic (1997).

“I remember the worst experience of my life, even above the kidnapping of my father, was shooting Mimic. Because what was happening to me and the movie was far more illogical than kidnapping, which is brutal, but at least there are rules. Now when I look at Mimic, what I see is the pain of a deeply flawed creature that could have been so beautiful.”

Guillermo del Toro’s first foray into Hollywood film making was not a happy affair, with studio interference damaging his take on the story he intended to tell, as well as how he intended to tell it. Demands were reportedly made for changes to the script midway through the shoot, perhaps accounting for the formulaic and underwhelming resulting piece.

Though we see glimpses of del Toro’s imaginative creature creation, Mimic is largely forgettable, lacking the depth we would later become accustomed to from a del Toro movie. GdT himself would later come to publicly disown Mimic, though he did eventually revisit the film for a Director’s Cut DVD release.

9) Blade II (2002)

Blade II
Blade II (2002).

“I’m a huge comic book fan. It’s tough to do a bad comic book movie. So many people don’t understand that comic books are one of the most sophisticated forms of entertainment. There are some comic books that rank up with the greatest works of humanity for me.”

Blade II was both del Toro’s second Hollywood movie and his second vampire story. It was also his first involvement in a sequel, shifting the tone of Stephen Norrington’s Blade, upping the humour and action quota comparatively.

A solid if unspectacular entry into his filmography, del Toro later turned down the opportunity to work on the third instalment of the trilogy in favour of focussing on Hellboy.

8) Cronos (1993)

Cronos
Cronos (1993).

“I’ve been obsessed with vampires all my life. I’ve never been satisfied with the romantic conception of the vampire, so I was fully conscious, trying to reformulate that myth from a completely new perspective, which is alchemy and addiction and Mexican melodrama all together.”

As his first feature length film, Cronos was to be the World’s introduction to Guillermo del Toro. And quite the introduction it was. An early example of his passion for horror and intricate design, Cronos tells the tale of an ageing antiques dealer who stumbles upon a device which grants the user eternal life; at a dear cost.

The Cronos device itself is incredibly detailed, showcasing del Toro’s eye for design early on in his career. Horrifying, intelligent and exciting, Cronos put del Toro firmly on the map.

7) Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim (2013).

“A movie like this, it’s easy to forget how unique you can make it. I wanted to make the movie not a war movie but an adventure movie — a movie that has a huge, romantic sense of adventure, grandeur, operatic battles that were not only respectable but have a huge emotional content. Because in a movie like this when you have 25-story monsters and you don’t have a sense of awe and scale, everything is lost.”

When Guillermo del Toro announced that he was making a monsters vs robots movie, it was clear that his take on the genre would be massive in scale and beautifully designed.

Drenched in neon colours and with gigantic Kaiju vs Jaeger battles, Pacific Rim is a delight, if not del Toro’s deepest movie. Nevertheless, it acts as his love letter to the genre, and in his hands it is a lot more fun than it has any right to be.

6) Hellboy (2004)

Hellboy
Hellboy (2004).

“What makes a man a man? A friend of mine once wondered. Is it his origins? The way he comes to life? I don’t think so. It’s the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.”

Ron Perlman’s casting as Hellboy’s titular character turned to be a stroke of genius, bringing heart to del Toro’s adaptation of Mike Mignola’s comic series. It was the actor and director’s third collaboration, with Perlman proving with style that he is leading man material.

Sandwiched in between The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy marked the midpoint of what was possibly the most prolific period of del Toro’s filmmaking career thus far in terms of sheer quality, and it more than holds its own alongside those two giants in his filmography.

5) Crimson Peak (2015)

Crimson Peak (2015).

“In Crimson Peak, we designed every color to be a part of the story. Every stitch in the wardrobe is deliberately planned. We imported lace that was created in the 1800s for real. Everything within the movie is telling you something.

We built the furniture in two sizes, so that when the character is weak, they would look smaller in a bigger piece of furniture. The same furniture was made smaller so the character looks stronger in another scene. As for props, we built the entire house, and hidden inside the house is the theme butterflies versus moths. The idea is, one of the characters feels that she is a moth that is a carnivorous night insect. And the other is seen as a butterfly that should be cute, cuddly and colorful. I wanted to show two sides of femininity and have them, sort of, confront each other.”

Beware Crimson Peak…beware the hauntingly intricate and dark Allerdale Hall, home to del Toro’s gothic romance. It was the first of his films to explore love in depth, and yes, it’s just as twisted as you might think (though it’s almost Disney-esque in comparison to his later effort The Shape of Water).

It’s well worth the price of admission for it’s astonishing costume and set design alone. For more on Crimson Peak, take a nose at the Flicks and Pieces review here.

4) Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).

“Well, the first thing is that I love monsters, I identify with monsters.”

The second time around, del Toro’s trip into the world of Hellboy upped the more fantastical elements of the universe, and with those elements came a beautiful colour palette and incredible practical effects.

Hellboy II improved on almost every aspect of the original film and expanded the scale significantly, featuring an excellent villain in Prince Nuada, an awe-inspiring Troll Market sequence which harkens back to the Star Wars Cantina scene and lots and lots of monsters. It was an amalgamation of what del Toro does best; stunning visuals and beautiful monsters, with a lot of heart and a large serving of humour.

3) The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

The Devil's Backbone
The Devil’s Backbone (2001).

“To me it’s not a ghost story, but a story with a ghost.”

Returning to smaller scale filmmaking following his unhappy time shooting Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone marked a recovery of form for del Toro. A small secluded orphanage operating during the final throws of the Spanish Civil War offers the perfect setting for the scares.

Rather than relying on cheap jumps and thrills, del Toro finds unease in slowly playing with audience expectations, layering on the tension as Santi, the ghost of a small child, haunts the lonely and lost inhabitants of the orphanage. A modern horror classic.

2) The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water (2017).

“The creature in The Shape of Water, for the first half of the movie, is blank and people project what they want to project onto him. The last third, he comes into his own. When Mexico was conquered, there was a phenomenon called syncretism, in which the Catholic religion of the conquerors fused with the old religion. In my case, that happened with Catholicism and monsters. They fused. When I was a young kid, I truly was redeemed by these figures. Where other people saw horror, I saw beauty. And where people saw normalcy, I saw horror. I realized that the true monsters are in the human heart. It was not their appearance.”

Guillermo del Toro’s latest, and almost his greatest, The Shape of Water is a visual feast for the ages. It’s a fantasy in the truest sense of the word, but much like Pan’s Labyrinth it’s one given weight and depth by the scope and maturity of the themes which it explores; war, love, sexuality, masculinity, and above all else, what it is to be human.

It unfolds like a greatest hits of all of the finest of GdT’s arsenal of tricks, bringing truly gorgeous production design, incredible cinematography and a monster given life through a combination of practical effects and a mesmerising turn from del Toro stalwart Doug Jones.

A beautiful love letter to cinema. Head on over to the full Flicks and Pieces review of The Shape of Water here.

1) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

“These shots are not eye-candy, they are, to me, eye-protein.”

Beautiful, mesmerising and heartbreaking, Pan’s Labyrinth is del Toro’s masterpiece. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War (as with The Devil’s Backbone), Pan’s Labyrinth tells the tale of a young girl’s journey into a fantasy world.

Throughout the duration of the film it’s unclear as to whether what we are seeing is reality or Ofelia’s imagination as she blocks out the cruel truth of the world surrounding her. She encounters the devious and terrifying Pan, the horrific Pale Man, who takes inspiration from Goya’s painting Saturn Devouring his Son, as well as her new stepfather Vidal, who is ultimately the most dangerous character she will face.

Pan’s Labyrinth cinematographer Guillermo Navarro picked up an Oscar for his work on the film and this is reflected in the beautiful use of colour, light, framing and camera movement throughout the film, with each aspect marrying perfectly to create a visually stunning treat.

Yet there is so much more to Pan’s Labyrinth than it’s visuals, and it will go down in history as the ultimate tragic fairy tale.

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Originally posted in 2014 and 2015, this third edition look at Guillermo del Toro features new images, new analysis, and a new ranking including his latest movies. I hope you’ve enjoyed.

For more on Pan’s Labyrinth, take a look at my deep dive into the film here:

Pan’s Labyrinth – Truth or Fantasy? 

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Have your say on your favourite del Toro movies in the comments below, and keep up to date on all things Guillermo del Toro right here at Flicks and Pieces.

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