Guillermo del Toro recently won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for his latest film The Shape of Water. This is a great moment in an already successful career of the 52-year old Mexican filmmaker who, as a kid, wanted to make monster films.
A cross between a creature feature and a fairy tale, The Shape of Water tells a story of a mute cleaning woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with a humanoid sea creature imprisoned in a science facility ran by the belligerent Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). Del Toro’s film is heavily indebted to a 1954 Universal monster film Creature from the Black Lagoon, where a creature like the one in The Shape of Water hunts down a group of scientists in the Amazon. In the Black Lagoon‘s two sequels – Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) – this Gill-Man is brought to civilization, with tragic consequences for both monster and people alike.
To del Toro, this thin line between terrifying and sympathetic became an endless source of inspiration.
As with many of the best horror films, there’s a certain pathos to the Gill-Man, who, while being bloodthirsty and violent, is also the last, lonely member of an extinct species. In the finale of The Creature Walks Among Us, the Gill-Man runs away from humanity, which had brought him so much woe, towards his true home – the ocean. Despite being unable to breathe in water anymore, he nevertheless walks into the sea, ready to die. To del Toro, this thin line between terrifying and sympathetic became an endless source of inspiration.
The True Monsters
You can see this in his very first feature film – 1993’s Cronos. Del Toro reimagines a vampire myth in a story about an elderly antiquarian Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi), who accidentally uncovers a medieval alchemy device that rejuvenates him. The usage isn’t without side effects though, as Jesús grows increasingly addicted to human blood. But the film’s true villains are the elderly Dieter (Claudio Brook) and his thuggish nephew and lackey, Angel (played by del Toro’s frequent collaborator Ron Perlman). While Jesús struggles against becoming a monster, Dieter and Angel are already monstrous. They don’t hesitate to murder people in their hunt for the device that, as far as they know, may not even exist.
Del Toro brought this same sensibility to his Hollywood films. His 2004 big budget adaptation of Mike Mignola’s cult graphic novel Hellboy is a great example of that. Brought to our world by a botched Nazi occult ritual, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is a monstrous denizen of Hell who sides with humanity against dark powers. Together with other monstrous misfits like the aquatic humanoid Ape Sapien (played by Doug Jones – yet another of del Toro’s favorite collaborators) and the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), Hellboy fights mad monk Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) a mortal who sold his body and soul to forces of evil in exchange for power. Here again, the true villains aren’t the monsters themselves but the people who deliberately choose to act like ones.
…the true villains aren’t the monsters themselves but the people who deliberately choose to act like ones.
Del Toro’s finest film to date is his 2006 dark fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth. The film takes place in Spain in 1944 where the forces of General Francisco Franco have won the brutal civil war only five years ago. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a sensitive girl whose sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) just married the brutal and selfish Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Ofelia discovers an old labyrinth garden where she meets Pan (again, Doug Jones) and undergoes a quest to gain immortality. Del Toro here deliberately muddles the easy dichotomy between prosaic reality and magical world of make-believe. Ofelia’s real-life story plays out like a Grimm fairy tale about abused children and wicked step-parents. On the other hand, the world of the labyrinth is far from an escapist fantasy – it is full of dangers and tragic real-life consequences for Ofelia. But yet again, the true villains aren’t mere monsters but the low-ranking army officer in a burgeoning fascist police-state who uses his power to hurt and kill those less powerful than him, even those he claims to care about. Pan’s Labyrinth is an unsettling, yet undoubtedly beautiful and heartfelt film.
Movies such as The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth are works of a visionary master, one who can take fairy tales and horror movies of our youth and turn them into memorable works of art. Del Toro keeps returning to seemingly silly movie creatures to bring us the deeply humane message about the evil, wonder, and sainthood hiding inside us all. For that alone, his work should be cherished and studied.
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