A mine of originality and a committed visualist, Guillermo del Toro is one of the most talented and distinctive filmmakers working today. His career has spanned over two decades so far, and he’d surely been even more prolific were it not for a couple of career setbacks (most notably abandoning the major commitment of THE HOBBIT out of sheer frustration). He’s made some remarkable films, but what is his best work?
Here’s my pick of Guillermo del Toro’s Top 4 films. Why Top 4? Because shut up, that’s why!
THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001)
Far more than a run-of the mill ghost story, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is a nerve-wracking viewing experience with real human drama at its core.
When young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) arrives at a remote orphanage during the final stages of the Spanish Civil War, it is immediately apparent that all is not well. There is an unexploded bomb stuck in the ground outside, sinister relationships between the orphanage’s staff and children, and the ghost of a boy wandering the corridors.
You have all the standard jump scares you’d expect in any horror film, but also drawn out scenes of tension, and the ghost itself, Santi (Junio Valverde) is brilliantly realised, managing to evoke the right mix of fear and sympathy from the audience.
“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 opening question from the philosophical Dr Casares (Federico Luppi) urges us to look past what scares us, and conquer our fears. This fits in with del Toro’s usual ethos, that his monsters are mostly sympathetic creatures, and should not be taken at face value, as simply evil. This was his first truly great film, and remains among his best today.
BLADE II (2002)
The second outing of the half-vampire “Day Walker” Blade (Wesley Snipes) is a thrilling superhero sequel that tweaks vampire lore just enough to make it feel fresh and exciting. Guillermo del Toro’s first experience of Hollywood (MIMIC) might well have put him off for life, but he bounced back here stronger than ever.
A new and lethal kind of vampire is stalking New York, one that hunts its own kind as well as humans. Blade bands together with a crack team of vampire mercenaries (including Ron Perlman and Danny John-Jules) to wipe out the Reaper genus and halt its path of destruction once and for all.
BLADE II is more aesthetically embellished (it is a del Toro film, after all) and slick than Stephen Norrington’s previous effort, and comes with more of a sense of humour in addition to darker themes. There’s some great seething banter between Blade and the love-to-hate brute Reinhardt (Perlman), in addition to plenty of stylishly brutal action to savour. The film also sees the continuation of one brilliant partnership, and the birth of another. Ron Perlman returned to the del Toroverse after an absence of almost a decade (he was in the flawed but interesting CRONOS) and has been in every English-language film the director has made since. Then there’s Luke Goss, who made for a leftfield choice of villain, but proved he’s really good at complex, sympathetic antagonists, which he again proved in HELLBOY II.
PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)
PAN’S LABYRINTH is a masterpiece of fairytale storytelling, effortlessly blending the real world with fantasy. Del Toro returned to his roots after a few years in Hollywood, crafting a Spanish-set fable full to the brim with soul, and like the film’s companion piece The Devil’s Backbone, a certain amount of bitterness towards Spain’s past.
Set in fascist Spain in 1944, a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), is sent with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to live in the care of her stepfather Vidal (Sergi López), a ruthless captain in General Franco’s military who is fighting guerrilla rebels. Ofelia loves to read and has a vivid imagination, frequently escapinh the clutches of her brutal stepfather to explore her new surroundings. One such escapade leads to the discovery an ancient labyrinth within which she meets a mysterious faun who promises her eternal life if she completes three tasks for him.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a film of affecting and fascinating contrasts. We are shown the horrific brutalities of war one moment and fantastical beauty the next. One minute we’re watching guerrilla rebels being brutally tortured by Vidal, the next Ofelia is being guided on a quest by delicate fairies. We see these worlds through the eyes of Ofelia, through the eyes of an imaginative 12-year-old, and therefore the distinctions between fantasy and reality are not clearly defined, but blur into each other. Everything in the film is meticulously designed, from the labyrinth itself to the ancient faun, the fairies and the horrifying array of creatures Ofelia has to face.
Ivana Baquero is a real find, and makes Ofelia a compelling heroine, full of wonder and a real moral drive. Sergi López also makes his mark as Vidal, a detestable but captivating, almost (disturbingly) understandable villain, and we should of course not overlook Doug Jones, an often unsung hero of film who memorably plays both the Faun and the Pale Man.
With Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro continued to prove that not only is he a master of visuals, but of character as well.
HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008)
HELLBOY II represents Guillermo del Toro finding a happy medium between the two stages of his career. It’s got the mix of high concept action and easy humour of his more successful Hollywood movies, and it’s got the beauty and heart of his Spanish-Language films.
A few years on from preventing the apocalypse, and all is not well in the life of our favourite big red ape (Ron Perlman). His pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) is prone to mood swings and is finding life living with Red difficult to say the least. Meanwhile, the BPRD must also contend with a renegade elf prince (Luke Goss) hell-bent on destroying the world of men to restore the Earth to its unspoilt glory.
While Pan’s Labyrinth is undoubtedly del Toro’s best film, Hellboy II is my favourite. It’s the perfect balance between the two del Toros – entertaining and heartfelt, poetic and action-packed, funny and emotional. You might well play del Toro trademark bingo while watching – you’ve got folkloric influences, fantastic creatures, clockwork and contraptions and a strong environmentalist message all contained within a very engaging comic book movie sequel. Perlman, Blair and Doug Jones (again playing multiple characters under makeup) are all strong, as are Goss and relative unknown Anna Walton playing the ideologically opposite elf twins. You also get the added bonus of Seth MacFarlane voicing a German spirit contained in a diver’s suit. They set up a third instalment brilliantly in the film’s final act, but if it never actually comes to fruition, then this is stunning final bow for the Right Hand of Doom.
Also, as much as people (quite rightly) harp on about the magic quality of Ofelia’s adventures in Pan’s Labyrinth, it is Hellboy II that contains the best scene of any del Toro film. It’s such a simple, hilarious and warm idea – Hellboy and Abe, two creatures set adrift from their respective worlds, working through the pains of love by getting drunk on Mexican beer and singing rambunctiously along to “Can’t Smile Without You”. It’s a unique, truly glorious sight to behold. SSP