On the Margins: The Films of Guillermo del Toro
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, the young Guillermo del Toro began experimenting at age 8 with his dad’s Super 8 camera, making short films with his Planet of the Apes toys. Even at this early stage, del Toro showed a knack for invention; in one of these shorts, a serial killer potato murdered his family before being immediately crushed by a car. Del Toro made ten such shorts before his first feature film, Cronos, but only the last two of these shorts, Doña Lupe and Geometria, have survived. His earliest influences include the gel-tinted giallos of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento and the labyrinthine mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock. Geometria, in particular, shows off the distinct influence of Argento’s primary-color-mad masterpieces on del Toro’s style.
Guillermo del Toro then studied special effects and make-up with Dick Smith, a legendary artist whose credits include The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, Scanners, and The Godfather. Del Toro spent roughly a decade as a makeup and effects artist and founded his own company, Necropia, during this time. And, certainly, his background in makeup and effects are evident in all of his following feature films, from Cronos all the way to The Shape of Water.
A Flirtation with Hollywood
Guillermo del Toro’s first feature film, Cronos, is the tale of an antiques dealer, an ancient, magical device, and a blood-thirsty mob. The antiques dealer, Jesus Gris, finds a metallic, scarab beetle-looking contraption covertly hidden in a statue by an alchemist during the Spanish Inquisition. When Gris uses it, he discovers that it de-ages him. A mysterious stranger comes to the shop and buys the statue, and Gris returns to his shop to find it trashed and a business card remains as the only marker of the culprit. When Gris visits the men who did it, they explain the healing power of the Cronos device and begin to hunt him down to capture it.
Though del Toro’s first feature was given and extremely limited release—opening in the United States on only two screens and expanding to a paltry 28—it was extraordinarily well-received by critics, many of whom thought the film was so good that it deserved a far wider release. Cronos captured Hollywood’s attention and del Toro was tapped to direct Mimic.
In Mimic, a disease carried by cockroaches in Manhattan is killing children. In an effort to curtail the epidemic, an entomologist, Susan Tyler, creates mutant insects which release a toxin that can kill the cockroaches and then sets them loose in the sewers of Manhattan. Though these bugs are genetically engineered to die after one generation, the insects are tougher than anticipated and after three years, Tyler finds that they have evolved into large creatures that can mimic the human form.
Though Mimic received mostly positive reviews from critics, who felt that the film had a strong and distinct visual style, the film lost money, grossing $25 million on a budget of $30 million. Dogged by studio interference and disappointment at the financial loss, del Toro went back to his low-budget roots and made a tragedy-horror masterwork, The Devil’s Backbone.
Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone centers around Casares and Carmen, who operate a small home for orphans during the Spanish Civil War. Aligned with the Republican loyalists, they hide a large cache of gold used to back the Republican treasury in the basement of their orphanage. As a result, Franco’s troops subject the orphanage to attacks while a defused bomb sits menacingly in the courtyard. Meanwhile, one of the boys at the orphanage begins to have visions of a mysterious apparition haunting the grounds.
The Devil’s Backbone established much of the visual language that del Toro would tap into again and again over the course of his career, from the mysterious stone-carved mazes of Pan’s Labyrinth to the pale-white apparitions bleeding red smoke of Crimson Peak.
The film was received to overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim. It was praised as a humanist ghost story, which refracts tragedy through horror and confusion. And, it has been subsequently ranked as one of the best horror films of the 21st century.
Refinement towards a Masterpiece
Though del Toro had been burned by Hollywood with Mimic—a learning experience he cites even as he was working on The Shape of Water—when he was asked to helm the sequel, Blade II, he took the job. In the film, a rare mutation in the vampire community, called the Reaper, creates vampires which feed on both humans and their own, in the process turning the victims they feast upon into new Reapers. Blade, a vampire-killer, is recruited by an elite team of vampires tasked with killing the Reapers.
When del Toro was brought on board after the original film’s director, Stephen Norrington, decided to turn down the offer, del Toro said he “wanted the movie to have a feeling of both a comic book and a Japanese animation.” Though Blade II received mostly mixed reviews, critics admired the visual artistry on display, including Roger Ebert who said of it, “Blade II is a really rather brilliant vomitorium of viscera, a comic book with dreams of becoming a textbook for mad surgeons.”
After directing one comic-book property, del Toro turned to yet another. As always, he has a keen eye for characters on the margins; characters that aren’t big names like Spider-Man or Batman. Guillermo del Toro directed Dark Horse comics’ Hellboy. In it, the allies have surrounded what remains of the Nazis at the end of WWII, and, in a last-ditch effort, the Nazis are attempting to use magic to win the war. However, before the Allies can stop their ritual, a demon escapes—Hellboy. He is adopted by the Allied forces and he grows into adulthood in America fighting against evil in New York City.
Hellboy was a financial success, earning a worldwide total of $99.4 million on a budget of $66 million, del Toro’s biggest financial success yet. It was also a critical hit with many praising the gorgeous gothic visuals and charismatic lead performance by Ron Perlman. After Hellboy, del Toro again turned back to his Spanish-language roots. Though, this time, it wasn’t because of being burned by a studio. This time, it was because he had a story to tell.
In 2005, Guillermo del Toro released what many, including myself, consider his finest work ever, Pan’s Labyrinth (or, if correctly translated from its Spanish title, The Faun’s Labyrinth). In 1944, in Francoist Spain, a young girl and her mother are sent to a military camp deep in the woods, to live with a brutal captain of Franco’s army, the girl’s new step-father. The young girl, Ofelia, meets a fairy late at night who takes her deep into a maze on the camp grounds where she meets a faun who tells her she is born of Royalty. To prove it, she must complete three tasks. If she fails, she will never see her real father again. The film is wrought with all the tragedy and horror and hope befitting of the film’s subject, location, and period. Though distinctly del Toro, the creature and set design draws from famed Spanish painter Francisco Goya.
The film was a financial success, grossing $80 million worldwide and another $55 million from DVD sales. It was also a tremendous critical success, receiving near universal acclaim. At Cannes, the film received a 22-minute standing ovation, one of the longest in festival history. BBC critic Mark Kermode picked Pan’s Labyrinth as the best film of 2006 calling it, “an epic, poetic vision in which the grim realities of war are matched and mirrored by a descent into an underworld populated by fearsomely beautiful monsters.” At the 79th Academy Awards, the film won Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Make-up and was nominated for Best Original Score, Original Screenplay, and Foreign Language Film.
The Big Leagues
Del Toro, after turning out what has become considered one of the finest films of the 21st century, turned back to Hellboy with its sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army. In it, an ancient elf, Prince Nuada, breaks a pact between humans and elves by releasing ‘the Golden Army’, a deadly battalion of fighting machines. Hellboy and his partners, Abe Sapien and Liz, set out to stop the Golden Army before it destroys humanity.
Hellboy II was a huge financial success, earning $160 million worldwide, his highest grossing film of his career. It was also a critical hit, generally praised as being just as well-crafted and inventive as the first film, with better special effects this time around. After this big budget effort, del Toro didn’t switch back to small-scale filmmaking. He went even bigger.
In Pacific Rim, when Kaiju, massive monstrous creatures, rise from the sea, a war begins that takes millions of human lives and tons of resources to end. To combat the Kaiju, Jaegers, giant robots piloted by two people in tandem, are created. On the verge of defeat, humanity has to turn to a washed-up former pilot and a fresh trainee who pilot a mech seen as a relic of the past.
As we see how the themes of tragedy as spectral presence developed over the course of his career, from The Devil’s Backbone to Pan’s Labyrinth to (as we will see) Crimson Peak, del Toro decided to make a film about cooperation across racial, national, and gender barriers. In other words, he wanted to make a film about unity, a theme that will become the lynchpin for his next masterwork, The Shape of Water. Once again, del Toro was inspired by Francisco Goya, this time, the painter’s “The Colossus”, hoping to capture the same awe he saw in the painting. He also used Hosukai’s “The Great Wave off Kaganawa” as a visual reference point for the water battles.
Pacific Rim was another box office success, earning $411 million worldwide and became one of the rare films to cross $400 million worldwide while barely crossing $100 million domestically. Critically, the film fared well. They praised the gorgeous visuals and fantastical creatures. Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph gave the film a 5/5 star review, likening it to rediscovering a favorite childhood cartoon. After this, del Toro yet again turned back to smaller-scale, narrative-driven filmmaking with his follow-up, Crimson Peak, a gothic romance thriller.
In Crimson Peak, Edith Cushing is a young woman in Victorian-era New York. Though her father objects, she becomes enamored with Thomas Sharpe, a well-mannered and erudite English gentleman looking for investment in the New World. She eventually decides to move with him to his home in England with his sister. But, Edith soon comes to realize that more than just secrets are buried under Sharpe’s manor and she begins to seek out what truly happened at the house.
With Crimson Peak, del Toro wanted to make a gothic romance-cum-horror in the vein of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents or Robert Wise’s The Haunting. He also has cited Kubrick’s The Shining as an influence, in terms of scale and detail. His gothic romance made $74.7 million worldwide on a budget of $55 million and it received largely positive reviews from critics who praised the gorgeous gothic set design and costuming. Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph said of it, “Its somber sincerity and hypnotic, treasure-box beauty make Crimson Peak feel like a film out of time…The film wears its heart on its sleeve, along with its soul and most of its intestines.” And famed novelist Stephen King praised it as “gorgeous and just fucking terrifying.” After Crimson Peak, del Toro finally turned to production for his long-gestating fairytale, sci-fi, thriller, musical hybrid The Shape of Water.
The Tale for Troubled Times
In del Toro’s latest, the voiceless Elisa, a janitor at a top-secret government lab in 1962, falls in love with a fish-like creature, ‘The Asset’, that has been captured by the domineering Strickland (a man whose constant appetite for sadistic torture is matched only by his constant appetite for cheap, hard candy). Eventually, with the help of her friend Giles and co-worker Zelda, Elisa attempts to break ‘The Asset’ out of captivity.
Del Toro has noted that the film was inspired by a shot in the 1954 classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, of the titular creature staring up at a swimming Julie Adams in rapture. This is a film overflowing with love for cinema, and particularly cinema about people on the margins. It takes cues for its musical beats from films like Powell and Pressberger’s The Red Shoes. And, its story borrows from Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and Peter Jackson’s 2005 update of King Kong. It’s also a film that, del Toro feels, speaks to the persistence of marginalization and persecution throughout American history.
Though it is too early to tell how the film will do at the box office at the time of writing, it has been met with widespread critical acclaim and Oscar buzz. The Shape of Water won the prestigious Golden Lion prize at the 74th Venice Film Festival. And, Ben Croll of Indiewire called it “one of del Toro’s most stunningly successful works, it’s also a powerful vision of a creative master feeling totally, joyously free.” I reviewed it earlier this week, and though my mind is still whirring with interpretations as I continue to digest what I saw, what I can say emphatically is that The Shape of Water is a masterpiece. It’s both timely and timeless. It’s spectacularly performed and beautifully mounted. It’s a film that whisks you away to another world while reminding you how deeply rooted the problems we face today are. It’s a film about the corruptive power of hate and the healing, transformative nature of love. In short, it’s one of the year’s best and more than worthy of del Toro’s fine pedigree.