Haunted by the relationship with his grandmother, Guillermo del Toro has managed to turn potential childhood traumas into captivating worlds of imagination, fantasy, and monsters.
Guillermo del Toro is known for his settings of fantasy riddled with imaginative monsters and charming stories. His fascination with all things related to monsters and dark fantasy is clearly shown throughout all his works, which one could well describe as blockbuster examples of pop-corn magical realism. But endearing though it may be on screen, this fascination actually comes from a dark stage during del Toro’s vulnerable childhood. His relationship with the punishing Catholicism of his grandmother (who would physically harm the director so that his suffering would serve God) impressed del Toro to leave a monstrous mark which, fortunately, he managed to direct towards art and entertainment with admirable success. If you’re unfamiliar with del Toro’s work, here are 7 movies that’ll immerse you in the mind of this beloved Mexican director.
(Ron Pearlman and Guillermo del Toro)
Released to universal critical acclaim, Cronos is del Toro’s first feature film both as director and writer. Argentine-Spanish Federico Luppi and American actor Ron Perlman star in this original turn on vampire-like stories about eternal life, blood-thirst, and the unending fight between good and evil. Its ambiguous ending combined with a tantalizing script help make this an intelligent and appealing film for those looking for an interesting twist to the vampire genre.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
This is del Toro’s first exploration of the Spanish Civil War as a backdrop for a dark fantasy story. Released in Spain under the Spanish title El Espinazo del Diablo, this movie is an enthralling gothic ghost story with overwhelmingly positive reviews. It’s been praised for its originality and emotional portrayal of a sad and terrible period in western history as seen from the eyes of a young boy who can hardly understand —let alone make sense of— the horrors of war.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Arguably the director’s best work, this masterpiece of dark fantasy had been described as the Alice in Wonderland for adults. The film, released in 2006, mixes reality with dark fantasy to create a masterclass in allegorical storytelling; complementing an intelligent and nerve-wracking script with captivating effects, gritty and beautiful photography, and memorable designs in a provocative fantasy world. The film follows a young girl as she deals with the authoritarian figure of his stepfather, who relentlessly hunts down anti-fascist rebels in Francoist Spain. A gripping, intelligent, sad, and beautiful commentary on the role of imagination in coping with human cruelty, this one is a must-see.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Based on a Dark Horse Comics graphic novel by Mike Mignola, Hellboy (2004) was written by del Toro after working on another comic book adaptation, Blade 2 (2002). From there the director was keen on collaborating with Mignola to write a sequel which was released in 2008. For del Toro, the first film in the franchise felt constrained in that it followed Mignola’s visual style and themes; but in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, del Toro let his imagination loose and was given free reigns to do as he pleased. The results were mesmerizing and combined the best from his previous films in terms of imagination and creativity with the added benefit of a Hollywood blockbuster budget.
Pacific Rim (2013)
This science fiction blockbuster epic is del Toro’s declared childhood dream. Pacific Rim was envisioned as a colorful adventure whose atmosphere was to be far lighter than the director’s previous work, and ultimately served as an homage to the Kaiju, Anime and Mecha genres. Inspired by Francisco Goya’s painting “The Colossus”, del Toro wanted to evoke a feeling of awe at the sheer size of the monsters and the robots fighting above the cities which combined the entertainment value of robot fights with the sublime fear of dealing with the titanic power of nature. The result is an exciting action epic of pop-corn enjoyment.
Crimson Peak (2015)
Del Toro’s reaffirmation of his love for ghost stories comes with Crimson Peak with Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston as part of the cast. Crimson Peak is based on a family anecdote: as declared by the director during the Lumière Festival in Lyon, France, after his grandmother passed away, she haunted his mother on at least one occasion. Del Toro also claims to have experienced ghostly apparitions himself. Ultimately, the endless hallways portrayed in many of del Toro’s films, most notably on Crimson Peak, are based on his grandmother’s old house. Beyond the actual merits of the film, Crimson Peak may represent one of the best examples for those looking to dwell in the director’s mind and see the depths of his childhood influences.
The Shape of Water (2017)
Del Toro’s most successful film to date, The Shape of Water received thirteen academy awards nominations and won four, including best picture and best director. The film cements del Toro’s fascination with monsters and keeps pushing the boundaries to give them unexpected roles and relationships with humanity. Rather than enemies or one-dimensional antagonists, del Toro works on re-conceptualizing monstrosity in society, thus creating sympathy for outcasts in the process. On this occasion, that effort translates beyond the expected monster-turned-hero trope by exploring a romantic dimension complemented with stunning photography and inspired acting.
Del Toro’s grandmother was an imposing figure. Through her, del Toro says, he was raised in a very dark and stark version of catholicism. She used to tell him he had to pay for all sins, lest he be engulfed in flames. She went as far as to put bottle caps in del Toro’s shoes so that he would bleed and through pain pay Jesus what was owed. As a kid he saw catholic images, in particular about the passion and crucifixion of the Christ, which are often portrayed in a spectacularly gory fashion. I would wish this childhood on no one, yet del Toro’s creative urge managed to turn these issues into art and entertainment. And we’re all the better for it.
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