VIDEO AND TEXT: Nelson Carvajal and Amber Sparks on Guillermo del Toro

VIDEO AND TEXT: Nelson Carvajal and Amber Sparks on Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro: The
Unlikely Auteur

As Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim release date fast
approaches, I can’t help but feel a little depressed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan (pun intended) of the kaiju—or giant monster—film, so I really
am looking forward to the release of this film, director and ultimate fanboy
Guillermo del Toro’s attempt to reboot giant monsters and mecha warriors for a
new generation. I seriously can’t wait to see Idris Elba and Ron Perlman battle
giant monsters from the deeps.

That said, I’m still in mourning for The
-that-could-have-been, a film that—instead of a lesser Lord of the Rings for small children and
people who love dwarf slapstick—might have featured an entirely new Middle
Earth. Imagine a brilliant, sadistic dragon-against-type; imagine troll-like dwarves
and sylph-like hobbits inhabiting an alien, immersive new world (instead of
wandering around in the digital landscape of LOTR like wide-eyed tourists:
“Look! There’s Galadriel!”); imagine Tolkien’s book, transformed utterly, in
the hands of a true auteur.

That’s right. An auteur. But,
you might say, shocked and appalled—he does genre

Yes. And?

His body of work reveals a filmmaker
who, along with a handful of contemporaries (both Andersons, Malick, Haneke,
Von Trier, etc.) has transformed his source
material so that it reflects absolutely his personal vision. And after
all, Hitchcock did genre, as Kurosawa often did. In del Toro’s case, the
personal vision was shaped by perhaps less
traditional sources
: by Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, by Universal Horror classics and
Godzilla and Gamera films, by a childhood in Mexico steeped in Catholicism, and
by a self-confessed nerd’s affinity for children, outcasts, and monsters.

His interest in film began as an interest in makeup
and effects
, and his films are his
films precisely because of the love and care he takes in designing his
creatures and his unreal worlds: the pagan, organic nature of his creatures is
uncanny and frightening—even the mechanized creatures resemble insects or
animals or very old gods. In a Hollywood in which horror movies routinely make
monsters and demons from a few ready-made molds, when comic book films
(with a few exceptions) follow a format that doesn’t deviate too much from the
standard—del Toro makes films like Pan’s
, with possibly the most terrifying creature in all of recent
cinema—The Pale Man, Norn-like and flesh-draped and utterly original. He makes
films like The Devil’s Backbone,
which turned the ghost story genre on its head. He makes films like Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army,
which took a wildly popular comic book and transformed it completely. The Troll
Market in Hellboy II is worth the
price of admission alone, as are the bizarre and frightening tooth fairies.
These creatures are unlike any you will find in any other film, because they
don’t come from formula and they aren’t lifted from other films. As Daniel
Zalewski wrote in his fascinating New Yorker profile of del Toro, “When movie monsters look largely the same, Del
Toro’s reach deep into the past and into mystic and pagan iconography to
present something else entirely—something far more terrifying and familiar . . . A
del Toro monster is as connected to a succubus in a Fuseli painting as it is to
the beast in ‘Predator.’ His films remind you that looking at monsters is a
centuries-old ritual—a way of understanding our own bodies through gorgeous
images of deformation.”

Del Toro himself seems motivated to keep moving, to keep
making it new. On
his sources of inspiration:
“The worst thing that you can do is be inspired
solely by movie monsters. You need to be inspired by National
by biological treatises, by literature, by fine painters, by bad
painters.” Indeed, in Pacific Rim,
del Toro has said he wants to create something entirely new, despite the
Godzilla and Gamera-like kaijus of
the genre’s heyday. He was instead inspired by perhaps not such an unlikely
source: Goya’s
The Colossus.

But a visual feast alone would make del Toro a great artist,
not a great filmmaker. The compelling and very dark stories he chooses to tell
are what animate the films and give them their haunting quality. Beauty holds
hands with horror, two sides of a coin in all of his films. Del Toro seems much
more in debt to Grimm’s Fairy Tales
than to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

One gets the impression that perhaps del Toro deals in
horror because of his dark view of human nature. People are the real monsters
in most of his films, not the fantastic, often ambivalent, only cruel-as-nature
creatures that inhabit his worlds. Humans are the ones who do the real, lasting
damage. He says, “I ended up thinking that monsters are sort of the patron saints
of imperfection. I try to celebrate imperfection in my movies; the really scary
characters are always the ones who insist everything has to be perfect.”

All this is the reason I’m still in mourning. I loved Peter
Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy
just like everyone else, and after that it would have been great to see what a
true auteur could do to put a different spin on the prequel. (I also would have
loved to see Del
Toro’s canceled adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness
.) But
I suppose it’s not such a bad consolation prize to get a new and exciting kaiju movie, one that will feature new
creatures but follow the old wild joy of the kaiju orgy of destruction in the (important for a pacifist
director) empty city (thus the scenes
of frantic evacuation in every giant monster movie ever). And maybe I’ll even
(fingers crossed) get to see him team with Charlie Kaufman to make what could
be the first
good screen adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five.

The man with endless creative ideas, who lives
in a mansion he calls Bleak House—filled with monsters, aliens, and comics—seems
perhaps more in touch with a pop-culture obsessed public hungry for good horror than any other director
since Hitchcock. And as del
Toro has said himself
, “Hitchcock would have gone
to Comic-Con. He would have signed collectible shower curtains. He
was a showman and an auteur.”
–Amber Sparks

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

Amber Sparks’ short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Her chapbook, A Long Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World was included in the chapbook collection Shut Up/Look Pretty from Tiny Hardcore Press, and her first full-length story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published in 2012 by Curbside Splendor. You can find her at or follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: