INSECTS TRAPPED IN AMBER: A Guillermo del Toro Directorial Retrospective.
Rummaging through Guillermo del Toro‘s filmography is like opening Christmas presents from your favorite uncle. The one whose affinity for the absurd and welcoming of the weird makes him the coolest uncle ever. Except it’s not Christmas with del Toro, is it? It’s most definitely Halloween, a time when the love of the spooky and the monstrous becomes a contagion, and – more religiously – the past is remembered through the dead and the hallowed. Gross, funny, action-packed, heartfelt and scary in varying spurts, del Toro’s directorial oeuvre (to say nothing of his 30-odd produced films) is consistent in one obvious way: visual depth. With little interest in layered profundities and intricate camera-work, del Toro’s stories pave the way for the production design, cinematography, and special effects to take centre stage (his background is, after all, in special effects). But through these visuals lies a bottomless love affair with outcasts of all types, Mother Nature’s little creatures, and big monsters with big purposes, making his storytelling relentlessly compelling through theme as much as image. The key word in that last sentence isn’t “monsters” or “creatures,” by the way; it’s “love.”
“By the time I’m done,” said del Toro in a 2013 interview with Twitch, “I will have [metaphorically] done one movie.” And true enough, one of the greatest pleasures for unhealthy cinephiles like yours truly is noticing the fractal nature of his cinema in character patterns, themes, visuals cues, and sentiments as they run through all of his (now 10) major directorial pieces. While there might be two sides to his cinema in terms of budget and scale, the del Toro who debuted with “Cronos” back in 1993 is the same dude who directed “Blade II,” the two “Hellboy” films, the pilot episode of “The Strain,” and most recently and emphatically, “Crimson Peak.” It’s this last one, the Gothic romance-cum-ghost story headlined by his starriest cast to date, that’s got his fans buzzing like one of his insects.
So, what better time than on All Hallow’s Eve to pay respect to one of the most imaginative filmmakers working in the realms of horror, while his latest still haunts the big screens as a cut above everything else in theatres? Del Toro’s films feel devised, rather than directed, which is why this retrospective won’t be focusing on synopsis or plot as much as a personal approach to tracing his unique modus operandi in terms of image and theme. The order is purposefully non-chronological as a way to remain focused on his semiology and not get sidetracked by how he developed as a filmmaker. The hope is that readers will appreciate the tenacity behind the director’s vision of metaphorically making one movie throughout the course of his whole career.
[Note: shorts, late 80s TV work on “Hora Marcada,” and the prologue in the Season 2 opener for “The Strain” are not featured in this article. Neither are any of his produced films, which deserve a retrospective entirely its own.]
Here we go!
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Written by: Guillermo del Toro & David Muñoz and Antonio Trashorras.
The title of this retrospective comes from one of the answers given to this film’s key question. In a narration that bookends “The Devil’s Backbone,” Federico Luppi‘s soothing timbre contemplates the nature of ghosts. If it’s spoken like a poem, and it sounds like a poem…
What is a ghost?
A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again?
An instant of pain, perhaps.
Something dead which still seems to be alive.
An emotion suspended in time.
Like a blurred photograph.
Like an insect trapped in amber.
This poetic verse is relatable to everything del Toro has directed before or since. From the Cronos device to Lucille Sharpe, the ghosts in del Toro’s cinema have always been of a metaphorical nature, linked by tragedy, against a backdrop of a haunted past where some horrific evil lurks. His go-to backdrop of evil, the Second World War, is first used here but will come back time and again, “Pacific Rim” and the two “Hellboy” films included. Looked at from another angle, del Toro’s ghosts are monsters inextricably tied to some kind of warmth and purpose. Between the poetic lines of ‘Backbone’ is a composite of horror and coming-of-age, where sensitive Carlos (Fernando Tielve) teams up with bully Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) against the corrupted greed of Janico (Eduardo Noriega), and restores balance for the boy-apparition Santi (Andreas Muñoz). The warmth here comes from the P.O.V. of innocence – just as it does in its sister-film “Pan’s Labyrinth” – but even Janico has shades of sympathy as a man who used to be a boy at the orphanage, likened to a would-be prince (the force of the fairytale is strong in del Toro). A good moment to remember that not a single creature (man or beast) in the director’s rogue gallery is a one-dimensional villain hellbent on destruction for destruction’s sake (even the cockroaches have an evolutionary purpose in “Mimic“).
“The Devil’s Backbone” is absolutely eerie from start to finish, but there is a tinge of romanticism in the air, visually referenced by the blood streaming upward from Santi’s head (Criterion‘s cover designer knows what’s what). These dualities of romance and horror, love and death, innocence and corruption, are staples in all of del Toro’s films and find their way to the surface either through dialogue, special effects, themes, or all of the above. Like an insect trapped in amber, the film is an intricate story frozen in time and preserved as something to admire, something that beckons us to look closer and appreciate a hidden beauty within.
Notable del Toro signatures: insects (in this case, flies), blood-clot eyes, creepy stuff in jars, doctor protagonist, helpful ghosts, amber lighting, dead children, a union of machine and flesh, evil bred in fascism
Written by: Guillermo del Toro.
With this film, the world tasted del Toro’s uniquely sweetened type of horror for the very first time. The prologue doesn’t just introduce us to the legend of the 16th century alchemist who created the Cronos device, but also the visual resplendence of darkness (recall the marble skin, the basins of blood..) that will become synonymous with Guillermo del Toro’s name from there on out. Once we get into the present, and antique dealer Jesú Gris (Federico Luppi’s first of three roles in del Toro’s Spanish-language productions) discovers the bug-like Cronos (seriously, what other director would take us inside the interior clockwork of this thing, and show us the poor slug that’s trapped inside the machinery?), a range of del Toro’s trademarks are born, destined to repeat themselves in his later films.
Trademarks like Ron Perlman, an actor who appears in five of del Toro’s films and who mastered the nonchalant, dirt-off-my-shoulder, attitude so comically necessary for balance in del Toro’s twisted worlds. More thematically, though, Gris becomes del Toro’s trademark monster with a big heart once the Cronos stings him, a vampire who is disgusted by his own craving for blood until, in the director’s scene of darkest humor, he drops on all fours and licks some off the floor in a public bathroom. The power of innocence (personified, in this case, by Gris’ granddaughter Aurora who bears an uncanny resemblance to “Pan’s Labyrinth’s” Ofelia) prevails over greed and evil, while the resurrected Jesu Gris must fight the insatiable hunger, another familiar force in del Toro’s work.
A final little fun note on “Cronos” concerns the only character who looks truly happy: the undertaker. I can only hope that this is del Toro’s deliberate wink, as also seen with Norman Reedus‘ character in “Mimic,” of having the happiest-go-lucky people be the ones who work closest to death and grossness.
Notable del Toro signatures: clockwork machinery, insects (in this case, slugs), blood-cot eyes, creepy specimens in jars, a union of machine and flesh, uncontrollable hunger, blood as food,
The Strain – “Night Zero” (2014)
Teleplay by: Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan.
Speaking of hunger, Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s “The Strain” puts the theme front and center on your television screens via the FX channel. In the narration that bookends the pilot episode which del Toro directed (these V.O. bookends are a common technique with del Toro, marrying “story” to “telling” for that familiar-yet-effective storytelling vibe), David Bradley‘s Abraham quotes a poet about the force of hunger as “the most important thing we know.” Even more interesting, and distinctly del Toro-esque, is what he goes on to say:
There is an another force, a different type of hunger, an unquenchable thirst that cannot be extinguished. Its very existence is what defines us, what makes us human. That force is love.
Mark my words; once I get savvy with video essays, I’ll take that opening narration and the poetic elaboration that closes the episode, and play it over a montage of everything del Toro’s directed. It’ll work like magic. Love is, after all, the emotional compass that guides all del Toro’s films. What’s great is that these musings on love are the opening lines of a show about a viral blood-sucking monster, entombed in an ancient coffin (“Cronos” says hello again), turning people into zombies (something dead which still seems to be alive) and connected to what appears to be some Nazi, purity-of-race type of evil (WWII, that backdrop again) unleashed on New York City. The hero of our story is the equivalent of a cop in del Toro land – an epidemiologist with the very biblical name of Ephraim (the ubiquitous and great Corey Stoll) – and the first episode alone has everything you need to know that this can only be, unequivocally, the work of one particularly imaginative mind. TV is an exciting medium for del Toro to tackle, but what sparks “The Strain’s” plugs with even higher voltage is that it’s based on a trilogy of novels he wrote with Hogan, which later – obvs – turned into graphic novels. TV, novels, comic books; all inevitable avenues for del Toro to explore, all winding roads on the same artistic highway.
Notable del Toro signatures: blood-cot eyes, doctor heroes, scientific deductions of intriguing biological abnormalities, creepy stuff jarred in formaldehyde, dead(-ish) children, insects (in this case, worms and the creature is one big bug visual motif), amber lighting, blood as food, evil bred in fascism.