Over the last month, Audience Everywhere has been celebrating Hispanic filmmakers and representation in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. But no celebration of Hispanic contributions to the world of cinema could possibly be complete without mention of Guillermo del Toro. Among other achievements, he is a member of the Three Amigos, as Hollywood has termed them, a triumvirate of critically successful Mexican directors, along with Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. This connection to his country and his countrymen is evident in his work as well as his interactions online. He is consistently supportive of Hispanic filmmakers, without any guarantee of repayment. This is just one example of del Toro’s passion on display, which is a large part of what makes him special among directors, regardless of background.
Speaking of background, it should be unsurprising that del Toro got his start training under makeup and effects master Dick Blick. Looking at his filmography, you will not see a single film that is devoid of makeup or extensive special effects. His love of monsters and all forms of creatures is apparent and palpable. This is doubly true if you had the honor of attending his touring exhibit, Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters, where he gifted the public with an opportunity to experience his epic collection of monster memorabilia, as well as many props and costumes from his own films.
Guillermo del Toro’s career, despite the common thread of special effects has been remarkably varied. He has created comic book films (Blade, Hellboy), gothic romances (Crimson Peak), pure romance with a dash of monstrosity (the upcoming The Shape of Water), along with films much more connected with what seems to be his passion, fairy tales. So, yes, these films are all connected through the lens of the grotesque, but the stories diverge from there. Although his highest grossing films are focused on comic book properties or action spectaculars featuring robots and kaiju, it is likely that he will be remembered for his more personal works. I doubt that there is any surprise that these are also his Spanish language films.
After some introductory work on short films, del Toro’s first feature was Cronos. This film combines the director’s fascination with death and with the beauty of creatures that would disgust most people. His use of overt religious symbolism, the occult, and insect iconography combines to make a disturbing film that would inform much of his career moving forward. His control over the tone and style through his first film is rarely seen in young directors. Even going back and watching it now, fans of his will see it as quintessentially del Toro in style from the opening frame. The discussion of the interplay between life and death, specifically the morality of everlasting life is interesting given his strict Catholic upbringing in Mexico. Cronos, in some ways, is focused on temptation, things we should not experience as human beings. The character of Jesus Gris is given the secret to lasting youth, but must, in turn, feed on blood. His disgust, and hopefully ours, is palpable, but he succumbs to even this. If there is a way out for Gris, it is due to self-sacrifice and not physically defeating the temptation. We are all weak, but can show strength to our creator in this way.
After a troubled production on the higher budget English language film Mimic, del Toro returned to his roots to create The Devil’s Backbone. This film, set against the backdrop of the final year of the Spanish Civil War, begins a pattern of del Toro films with child protagonists. The Devil’s Backbone is both a ghost story and an indictment of the treatment of children during war. His decision to follow the character of Carlos is what makes the story worth telling. The journey would change drastically if we were to follow one of the adults at the orphanage instead. Carlos’s lack of awareness, his innocence, regarding both the ghost and what is happening in the outside world, assists the audience who may not know the history of Spain. We are dragged along with Carlos into a world of the supernatural and of natural forces which may be just as dangerous as the haunted orphanage. The specter of the bomb in the courtyard is perfect symbolism for the surrounding country of Spain. The war is exploding all around them, and soon all of this pain and violence will appear at the orphanage, placing all in greater danger than they thought possible.
After working on two successful and relatively high budget comic book properties, del Toro returned to Spanish language filmmaking to make his most critically successful work. Pan’s Labyrinth could easily be seen as a companion piece, a female version, to The Devil’s Backbone. Pan’s Labyrinth is, quite simply, the work of a master. It combines the absolute best of del Toro. A beautiful, but dangerous fairy tale which follows Ofelia in two parallel, impeccably told, stories. One is inhabited in the real world just after the Spanish Civil War. The other is a fantasy tale which leads her to meet unforgettable character creations, such as The Fawn and The Pale Man. These are easily del Toro’s most well-known creatures, and for good reason. The Faun is a fully fleshed out character, who has depths one can only find on rewatch. The Pale Man will inspire immediate fear and torment the dreams of many viewers. The genius of Pan’s Labyrinth though, is not simply the world building, special effects, and tone. The discussion inherent on which world is most dangerous says a great deal about del Toro’s world view, as well as his feelings towards children in adult worlds. Ofelia’s interactions with her mother’s new husband, Captain Vidal, contains, without a doubt, the most horrific moments of the film. There are no masks, stilts, or special effects makeup needed here. The tyranny of man, the cruelty of the military in this time in history is housed within this portrayal. It will leave use begging to go back to the Pale Man’s house, which almost seems like a relief. There is also wonderful symmetry between the characters in the human world and the world of the Faun. Pan’s Labyrinth not only holds up to repeated viewings, but reveals itself more on each experience.
Guillermo del Toro’s career, thus far, has a surprising breadth to it. You may know him as the guy who makes monster movies. You may more recognize him as a director who focuses on dark fairy tales and child protagonists. Or you may see him as an artist who makes horror or comic book properties. But for my money, he can do it all, and hopefully will continue. With early reviews and reactions for The Shape of Water angling towards awards season, it is possible that del Toro will finally get his critical due. Regardless, Guillermo del Toro may be our greatest Hispanic auteur (and one of the greatest generally speaking). His is a career that will be looked back upon with awe in a few decades time. His ability to blend darkness and hope, emotion and special effects, and religion and the profane is unparalleled. We are all fortunate to experience this as it unfolds.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.