In the slightly more than a dozen years since Guillermo del Toro first appeared on the international film scene with Cronos, a film that made a stunning debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993, the Mexican auteur (recently dubbed by Sight & Sound as a "latter-day Welles") has directed five more features – and is currently in pre-production on a sequel to Hellboy. Collectively his films form a visually sublime, dramatically rich and remarkably coherent body of work which gathers up among its many layers more thematic and stylistic motifs in common than might at first be apparent. Is it a coincidence or a beguiling conceit on del Toro's part that Pan's Labyrinth is set, (as is the prologue in Hellboy), in 1944, with secret portals in the film's Northern Spanish setting – in Hellboy, they are somewhere "off the coast of Scotland" – likewise operating as a conduit between this world and some dark, unknowable other?
Whether working within the parameters of the U.S. studio system (Blade II, Hellboy), tussling with the Weinsteins in an effort to maintain the integrity of his singular vision (Mimic), or producing Spanish language films in his native Mexico (Cronos) and Spain, there is a sense of the uncanny that pulses through all of del Toro's films. It is a quality that persists whether it be an adaptation of a graphic comic (Hellboy), in a rendering of the bloody histories of the Spanish Civil War (The Devil's Backbone) or of Franco's brutal suppression of Republican resistance fighters in the waning days of World War II (Pan's Labyrinth).
Though monsters, demons and vampires invariably encroach upon worlds otherwise deeply entrenched in a recognisable "reality" in del Toro's films, it is in the human protagonists that the darkest and most destructive impulses are harboured: the grandfather Jesus Gris (played by del Toro regular Federico Luppi) weighing up the cost of immortality in Cronos; the hateful orphaned caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) in The Devil's Backbone; or the merciless, psychotic Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) in Pan's Labyrinth (one can imagine an alternate destiny for Jacinto as a raw recruit for Captain Vidal in Franco's Civil Guard a few years down the track).
Both Jacinto and Captain Vidal are bedevilled by anxieties around issues of paternity that weigh upon their masculine pride. Captain Vidal is fixated on a watch that marks the hour of his father's death: a man of war like himself though, tellingly, one of higher rank. His determination to father a son impairs whatever residual skerrick of humanity may yet survive in his brutalised soul. When his wife enters into a difficult labour, his chillingly dispassionate directive to her doctor is to save the life of his male child over that of his wife.
Jacinto is an angry young man, embittered by what he perceives as his father's abandonment. His neurosis manifests in a cowardly machismo that proves fatal to the young woman who loves him, and in reckless and unchecked violence towards the young male pupils of the orphanage meant to shelter them. "How lonely, the prince without a kingdom, the man without warmth," reflects Carmen (Marisa Paredes), the school's headmistress, on discovery of a note written years earlier on the back of a photograph of a younger (though already emotionally scarred) Jacinto. It is a reflection that could pertain just as well to Captain Vidal.
Patriarchal bloodlines are less of an issue for the "half man, half devil" Hellboy (Ron Perlman); though, as the progeny of demonic forces conjured by the Nazis, you might reasonably expect him to take issue with his ancestry. Professor Trevor Broom (John Hurt), an expert in the paranormal enlisted by President Roosevelt to assist the Allied cause, becomes the demon's surrogate father and engenders in his adopted son not only an abiding humanity, but also offers him the moral guidance of a faith that (on a good day) inspires active engagement with one's conscience.
Jacinto and Captain Vidal forfeit their humanity through acts of unconscionable cruelty. Younger characters in del Toro's films must likewise navigate perilous journeys towards maturity. Childhood innocence and its inevitable corruption are embodied in the travails of the young, self-possessed Aurora in Cronos, the orphaned Carlos in The Devil's Backbone and the fearlessly resolute Ofelia in Pan's Labyrinth – each in their own way curious, reflective and, by necessity, resourceful. (They also share with del Toro a habit of keeping sketchbooks or diaries, and have a propensity towards richly imagined fantasy lives.)
The horror/fantasy genre allows me to create certain images that I can't create in any other genre. There are certain images I find extremely poetic that can only exist in experimental films or in the horror/fantasy genre, where you're allowed to break all the rules of physics and chemistry.
All three confront antagonistic forces, both supernatural and human, in rites of passage that are imaginatively rendered in frightening encounters with dark "underworlds" in both literal and more metaphoric terms. Aurora accepts her "undead" grandfather's vampiric metamorphosis with no nonsense practicality, following him into a Hades-like underworld in which she must confront her grandfather's nemesis, the macabre Dieter de la Guardia. Carlos and his orphaned school friends play at spearing a woolly mammoth, but face far graver dangers at the hands of Jacinto in the watery basement that entombs a former student, Santi (whose ghost mournfully haunts the orphanage). Ofelia has her work cut out for her protecting a filial bond with her pregnant mother, steeling herself against the emotional tyranny of her heartless stepfather (Captain Vidal), trying to prove to a faun of vaguely volatile temperament – and to herself – that she might be the heir apparent of an otherworldly realm, and rescuing her newborn baby brother from imminent danger intimated by both man and mythological beast.
Del Toro, then, is as much a humanist as he is a fabulist: a lapsed Catholic ("not quite the same thing as an atheist", he qualifies) nonetheless "attuned to the strange vibrations of the supernatural" (1). For del Toro, who famously turned down an offer to direct The Chronicles of Narnia because Aslan's resurrection rang false to him, sacrifice and redemption are matters of profound import. Salvation is never easily won and just as often forfeited. It is in the dramatic quest of the human characters in del Toro's films – and one 'adopted' human in the case of Hellboy – to confront or forever be vanquished by their own "demons" that his films find their most compelling and haunting resonance.
– Roberta Ciabarra
- Mark Kermode, 'Girl Interrupted', Sight & Sound, December 2006, pp. 20–24