He’s a director whose name conjures up a specific image of his unique style. Guillermo del Toro has made a career making the movies he wants to, films as varied and diverse as his own interests. Whether creating a low-budget, Spanish-language vampire tale or a blockbuster movie with robots punching monsters, he’s maintained his legacy as a meticulous craftsman, who insists on paying the utmost attention to every detail. His work has helped legitimize comic book movies for a mainstream audience, with Blade 2 markedly improving on the original, and two Hellboy movies that attained wildly popular cult status, and a third stuck in perpetual development hell, (which is something he’s used to).
He’s a master of the macabre, a fantastical filmmaker who finds terror in simple human biology. In his latest movie, Crimson Peak, which opens today, he was directly involved in everything from how the costumes were made to both the aesthetic and functional aspects of the mansion. To celebrate his commitment to vision, here’s a look at some of his incredible imagination, vision, and attention to detail across five of his most acclaimed films.
Cronos – 1993
Del Toro’s first major motion picture, which was in theaters by the time he was 28, was a kind of vampire story with a human element. The story of an antique dealer (Federico Luppi) who finds the key to immortality and his relationship with his granddaughter (Tamara Shanath) sets up many of the themes that become familiar in his work. The cronos device itself was inspired by jewel-encrusted Masquech beetles, a kind of living jewelry popular when del Toro was growing up in Mexico. While shaped like a scarab, but found inside a statue of an archangel, it brings up insects side-by-side with Catholic imagery, a theme that he’d frequently revisit in future films.
While well-made and atmospheric, what sets Cronos apart from any other low-budget vampire reinvention story is the way Del Toro tells it, applying gore and disgust liberally, while balancing it out with a strong, human element. Here’s del Toro talking to The Los Angeles Times in 2010:
You have the idea of the mundane being invaded by the extraordinary, but in a really kind of grungy way; it’s not a spectacular invasion of the fantastic. And the idea for making a genre that is normally spectacle or gore and making it about a family and a small group of people and their relationships, and writing it in a way that is not the Hollywood way of writing.
After all the years he spent working to get Cronos made, he ran into a budget shortfall at the end, preventing him from filming a tracking shot inside the device, which required it to be replicated on a large scale, complete with a giant, rubber insect. The studio tried to convince him he didn’t need it to make the movie work. Del Toro disagreed and sold his van to raise enough money to get the shot he desired.
Mimic – 1997, 2011
His second major feature film, and the first within the Hollywood system, would leave a bad taste in del Toro’s mouth for almost 15 years. Studio interference was so severe that he disowned the picture upon its release, only to re-cut it to his own vision before it was released on Blu-ray in 2011. That same year he explained to Empire Online why he revisited the film in the first place.
“We went back to the Miramax vault, which is like the final shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark! We were rummaging through discarded footage of Sling Blade until we found the boxes for Mimic, and we tried to reconstruct certain parts. We couldn’t find all the footage we really wanted. But let me put it this way: For a long time Mimic was a movie that I couldn’t love. This is the cut I love.”
After sorting through all the footage, the 10-ish minutes he added focuses on the nuance of his characters and other thematic moments that he liked, as well as taking out several minutes of scenes shot by the second unit, shoehorned into the theatrical release by the studio. As a result, he says, the idea finally comes through that it’s about “human arrogance – that and the idea of the exploited workers and how they talk about the insects as angels, and many other little things.”
At its core, it’s still a monster movie, and with del Toro at the helm, it’s got quite the number of monsters. Using a giant book of insects he keeps as a reference (to no one’s surprise), he and the production designer looked at insects’ mouths, wanting them to look like real insects. His strive for accuracy paid off, as his lead actress, Mira Sorvino, had the defensive excretion of the sunburst diving beetle named after her, because her character, Dr. Susan Tyler, “successfully confronted the ultimate insect challenge.”
The Devil’s Backbone – 2001
“To me it’s not a ghost story, a story with a ghost,” Del Toro says about his return to independent filmmaking in the form historical commentary/horror. He’d written it 16 years earlier as part of his thesis, and his dissatisfaction with Mimic prompted him to return to his roots, filming the Spanish-language movie in Madrid, a period piece set during the Spanish Civil War.
“Spain was as abandoned and adrift as the orphanage in the middle of the desert. The idea was to put something in the middle of nowhere; I wanted to create a Chinese Box of the war for my film.” He also admittedly breaks the ‘less is more’ rule throughout — showing as much of the ghost as possible, so that by the end, that’s not what’s scaring viewers. Including meditations on war, death, and innocence, it was the first film Del Toro made that he was completely happy with. He explained on the film’s commentary track:
The movie is constructed like a rhyme, something I have been trying to do for many, many years. The movie opens with similar images and a similar epilogue and prologue. In the movie we will be quoting many images in pairs.
It wouldn’t receive the universal praise that Pan’s Labyrinth would get, though it was considered a milestone in his career. After 16 years, he took the old script that at one point called for a three-armed Christ instead of a ghost and built it into a layered story told through the innocence of a boy, (Fernando Tielve), who doesn’t quite realize what he’s seeing.
Pan’s Labyrinth – 2006
Set in a rural military outpost in 1944 Spain, del Toro continued several of the themes he touched on in The Devil’s Backbone while crafting a much different story. At its heart, it’s del Toro’s portrait of the political chasm that existed among the populace in Spain. This is portrayed through two different creatures who exist in the film’s fairytale world, both of which came out of del Toro’s personal sketchbook.
The first is Pan, a masculine, faun-like creature who serves as a guide through the underworld. Del Toro would tell Doug Jones, the actor portraying him, to be “more Mick Jagger, less David Bowie!” He chose his words deliberately, as he wanted the creature to have a rock-star energy, something monolithic he created to pit against Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the film’s main character.
The other, The Pale Man, (also played by Jones) started as an old man with sagging skin, who represented gluttony and the church, would eventually come to have his own twisted kind of stigmata, with del Toro at one point deciding to “take out the eyes and put them on a platter before him. I saw a statue when I was a kid where she had the eyes on a little plate. That was pretty freaky, and I liked it.” If that wasn’t unsettling enough, he also drew inspiration from Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son for the scene’s climax.
Del Toro also created a human villain who is both disarming and well-spoken. “Most people make their villains ugly and nasty and I think, no, fascism has a whole concept of design, and a whole concept of uniforms and set design that made it attractive to the weak-willed.”
Pacific Rim – 2013
After a five-year hiatus following 2008’s Hellboy 2, del Toro returned with a big-budget love letter to the kaiju movies he watched growing up as a child. He fondly remembered, “the way they transported me, the way they made me feel in awe of these gigantic creatures strolling across the ocean, coming into the city — it’s unlike any Western movie genre ever.” He also describes it as a male, baseline primal instinct of sorts, “where you give them a robot and a dinosaur, and the instinct is just to have them fight.”
It was a considerably larger production than anything he’d worked on before; bigger-than-life effects, hundreds of extras and taking place on a global scale. Despite the massive undertaking, Del Toro still works to make sure the tiniest details are in place, as he told /Film:
I do a thing that is very particular, which is I put little things in the atmosphere, like snow or rain, so that when the CG model moves they move the particles around it or I put water on the floor or I put… Obviously with the ocean there’s dispersion and whatever. I put things that the model disturbs.
It wasn’t just the skyscraper-sized monsters or jaegers for Del Toro, either, having specific ideas about casting as well, bringing in his long-time collaborator Ron Perlman, as well as casting Charlie Day based on the speech about rats he gave in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. It’s his undeniable approach to filmmaking, constantly involving himself in every aspect of the production. “100 percent goes through me sooner or later,” del Toro told Variety. “I do not delegate anything. Some people like it, some people don’t, but it has to be done that way.”