Waiting for del Toro
By Desmond Reddick
16 January 2007 — There are genre directors who command so much respect that the very mention of their names can elicit a silent smile and nod from fans. While most have been around for two or three decades, Mexican-born Guillermo del Toro, in little more than one decade, has left a huge impression and looks to be the greatest crossover genre director of our generation. For Reel Dread's first director spotlight, let's take a look at his filmography.
Is it weird that my favorite vampire film is not a vampire film at all? Del Toro meant business when his first feature film, Cronos, debuted in 1993. This winner of nine Mexican Academy Awards and a Cannes Film Festival Critics' Prize began the working friendship between del Toro and American actor Ron Perlman. The film centers around the conceit of an alchemist creating the Cronos device: a machine giving its possessor eternal life. Of course there is always a price to eternal life. When an aged antiques dealer and his granddaughter come across this device they learn that price. Although it is a flawed film in a few ways, it hints at the brilliance to come in del Toro's career.
Having so much success with Cronos meant that del Toro was lured to Hollywood in 1997 for a Mira Sorvino creature feature called Mimic. While it takes place in one of del Toro's recurring settings, underground, it is ruined by ridiculous performances. It is no secret that del Toro struggled with executives throughout the making of this abomination and caved to studio pressure. Funny enough, this is one of three horror films that my wife and I have watched together in the theatre, and, although I hated it, there is a certain rhythmic clicking noise throughout Mimic that unnerves my wife to this day. So it couldn't have been that bad.
Defeated, del Toro spent the next few years putting the finishing touches on a film that would be one of his best; 2001's The Devil's Backbone is much more than a ghost story, it's a lyrical and haunting morality play set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The setting is an orphanage in the countryside where a young man is dropped off by his father's revolutionary friends. He doesn't know his father is dead, but he does know there is something odd going on at the orphanage. There is a bomb sticking out of the ground in the courtyard, an open pit of murky water under the orphanage and a ghost of a boy called "the one who sighs." Without saying more about the plot, I will note that "the one who sighs" is one of the most compelling looking characters in a horror film I have ever seen. I can't praise this film enough. If you like ghost stories and you haven't seen The Devil's Backbone, then you must do so now. I don't like ghost stories and this is one of my favorite films — period.
The disaster that was Mimic did not push Guillermo away from Hollywood for too long, however. He returned to La-La Land to helm his biggest moneymakers to date: Blade II and Hellboy. Both are comic book adaptations with a particular bend towards the horror genre and both feature his favorite actor, Ron Perlman. I have heard that the studio wanted someone more recognizable for the role of Hellboy to ensure higher numbers, but del Toro threatened to walk if Perlman wasn't involved. In but a few years, it seems, del Toro learned how to handle studio execs.
I've argued this before so I'll just say it as if it were gospel: Blade II is better than its predecessor. I know it is a little clichéd in its "new breed of vampire" direction, but it's Blade! The very premise is that he is a new breed of vampire, and I don't care what anyone says, the opening sequence of this film and the underground (there it is again) sewer battle make this far superior than the original. And showing his smarts again, del Toro turned down the offer to direct the third film in the series.
Hellboy, while not a film I particularly enjoy, was lovingly adapted and had the foresight and respect to include Hellboy creator Mike Mignola as a creative consultant. Ron Perlman returned for his third del Toro film in the role he was seemingly born to play. The effects and monsters are all very cool and the action's believable, but there's just something about the film's normal moments which seem too artificial. Why is it that a red-skinned, cigar-smoking paranormal investigator can be snatched by a giant tendril and look real while a talking head scene looks computer generated? Weird.
So, what is it about Guillermo del Toro's films that resonate with viewers? Speaking solely about his Hollywood efforts, they tap into a rich, diverse history of international monster movies. Blade II really modernized the Nosferatu look. The vampire genre has been littered with the sexy, seductive European vampire as of late (Blade III being the perfect example), so the rodent / insect-like look of the newer breed of vampires was fresh. Hellboy contained monsters of various influences: Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein and various Lovecraft writings and mythologies. Mimic, while not the greatest film in the world, harkened back to the genetically modified animals of yesteryear found in B-grade films like Night of the Lepus, Them! and essentially any nuclear fallout film from the 1950s. They're fun cautionary tales, ripe for Mystery Science Theater 3000-type activities.
His Spanish-speaking films being his labors of love, have an altogether different set of qualities that endear them to their viewers. They have the creepy creatures like the Hollywood films but with a twist: the Cronos device is like a reject from an Indiana Jones movie and "the one who sighs" is a disturbing Japanese-inspired ghost child. But it is more than monsters that make these films beautiful: they are stories of a loss of innocence. They are warming and haunting at the same time. They carry with them the wonder and terror of childhood, which is next to impossible to capture on film. Only one other film, in my estimation, truly captured these same themes: Stand by Me. So del Toro is in good company.
With the dark fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, the director's second picture to use the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop, del Toro will seize the hearts and minds of mainstream moviegoers without compromising his twisted vision. For those more partial to his popcorn fare, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army hits theatres next year. And for those clamoring for something more along the lines of Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, look for 3993 in 2009. (3993 is the third in del Toro's loose trilogy of Spanish Civil War films. This one being about a group of ghosts in the 1990s with strong ties to the war.) No matter which way this modern master of horror goes — Hollywood or Spanish-speaking — all I know is that I'll be along for the ride.