It was in 2010, at a press junket for Relativity Media’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army — a sequel to their quiet box-office hit Hellboy — that Guillermo Del Toro was asked during a Twitter Q&A with Digital Spy about the prospect of working with a fellow proprietor of dark fantasy, Neil Gaiman. In his answer, Del Toro was clearly joyful about the notion of working with a creator whose inspirations derive from the same sources as his own. He says as much after boasting about his admiration for Gaiman’s craft by mentioning those he presumes were artisans who spoke to Gaiman as a young writer — authors like Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and Michael Moorcock.
It’s clear that these names also serve as origin points for Del Toro, who in 2017 took part in an expansive editorial piece with Stephen Galloway and the Hollywood Reporter. Del Tor also discusses his attempts to cultivate the “lucid nightmares” he experienced after watching an episode of Leslie Stevens’ 1963 TV Series, The Outer Limits. An anthology series spawned out of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, with a steadier dosage from the science-fiction genre. The episode Del Toro digested before bed while staying at his grandmother’s small house in Guadalajara, Mexico, involved Warren Oates depicting a mutant with a glimmering bald head and giant pulpy eyes. That image merged with the Roman Catholic Church’s iconography, a religion that was plodded into his upbringing by his grandmother.
“I would wake up in the dream as if it was in my room, and I would literally see creatures,” he recalled when speaking with Galloway. “There was no difference between that and reality. In my grandmother’s house, every now and then, the church bells nearby would chime late, either at midnight or 10 p.m. I would hear the bells going ding-dong, ding-dong, and there was a big armoire in my room, and out would come a hand and the face of a goat and the leg of a goat. It was horrible, so horrible.”
55-years of age now, Del Toro has induced young creatives like me with films that have continuously elicited the land of dreams that kept him awake as a young boy. From his 1993 mythological and religiously infused work Cronos; to his adaptation of the Dark Horse Comics’ anti-hero Hellboy; to his Oscar-nominated and disobedient fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth; to his 2017 success found in the tender and lyrical romance The Shape of Water (also Oscar-nominated and winner of Best Picture, Best Original Score, and Best Director).
In his career, Del Toro has often tried to manifest stories that often undertake his former childish perspective, tales that speak as an adult looking back on their childhood. He’s done so by reinventing or recapitulating the tone in which fantasy has often been described: the mythical and wondering world of implausibility and conservative messaging.
Going as far back as Walt Disney, and his early embarking in animation in what are look back on today as classics of a by-gone era. While still respected and even admired for their craft — even gaining mention in Variety’s amazing and insightful listing of the 100 Most Influential Sequences that Shaped Animation — there’s a noticeable trait that Walt inherited from the 19th-century antecedents of those who came before him with fairy tales that often echoed an antiquated, conservative morality involving a patriarchy value system. In this, Disney limited the very thing’s a fairy tale can achieve, though they’ve certainly evolved since then.
Del Toro was not alone in reimagining the potentiality of a fairy tales’ narrative merit and even elasticity; wonderous creators joined him along the way, such as Neil Gaiman’s work in literary fiction and Hayao Miyazaki’s work in the realm of animation. This is perhaps no more noticeable than in his 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth. The story he tells involves a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother (Ariadna Gil) as they go to live with the hyper-fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi López) five years removed from the Spanish Civil War. While Vidal is busy trying to snuff out the final remnants of rebellion in Spain’s green mountains awaiting the birth of the child beard by Carmen, Ofelia becomes ensnared with a magical quest that begins after a faun tells her she is the lost princess of an underground realm.
The film splits itself between two narratives, a mythical quest and a political drama, neither of which become reducible to the other. Nothing is absolute in Del Toro’s story, and their entwining worlds never seem to be authenticated by the other; instead, the film refuses to obey our desires as viewers. Del Toro weaponizes multiplicity throughout the film, a form of narrative approach in which the overlaying plot can be diluted into an interweaving of intertextual references and subjective meaning that makes thematic interpretation a matter of choice. The iconography of some of Labyrinth’s more poetic sequences, like that of the introduction of the Pale Man, can be linked to prior moments in the film, mythological inspirations for the monsters living on the screen before us, and references to real-world events that foreshadow the tragic finale to Ofelia’s quest.
Del Toro’s approach is not universal, but there is a lacing of texture found in Pan’s Labyrinth that is reverberated throughout the entirety of his filmography. He’s contextualizing and mimicking prior dreams of his youth for new reincarnations that are achieved with camera work and editing that press the narrative momentum forward along with a cinematic fingerprint of practicality and tactile dreamwork fantasy, all of which is yoked in the violent dreamscape of his youth.
A youth in which Del Toro’s grandmother, Josefina, often feared Del Toro’s liking of monsters as a sign of religious calamity, going as far as to exorcise him with holy water, something Del Toro laughed about at the time. She would do worse things, however. Once, she stuffed his shoes with bottle caps as a way for him to pay for his sins committed, something that led to him embracing a bond riddled with guilt.
“there were many bottle caps, metaphorically, that were put in there. I formed a bond with her that was full of guilt, because she explained to me things like original sin, and that was really difficult for me to understand. The notion of sin, the notion of damnation — there is a lot of pain in the Catholic religion in Mexico; there is a lot of guilt.”
He was six years old when he saw his first monster feature, James Whale’s impeccable 1931 classic Frankenstein. It was then; he felt an overwhelming sensation of identifying with the damaged creature standing before him in all of its black-and-white glory. The monster merged with that of his grandmother’s notion of christ, a messiah giving his life for others’ sins. Perhaps, that is when he fell in love with those who didn’t fit in. He, himself, didn’t find it so easy to mesh with the world around him as a young, thin, almost albino boy. In his early years, he was frequently bullied and became petrified by illness, referring to himself in his discussion with Galloway as “the world’s youngest hypochondriac.” It was a result caused by the reading of his father’s health encyclopedias, which melded with his fear of being misshapen or the product of a broken mold.
Del Toro became more popular as he grew older and infused his youthful obsessions with his artisan prowess. That popularity and fame would be concealed by Del Toro himself when his father was kidnapped in 1998 and held for ransom for 72 days. It was a harrowing moment for Del Toro in which the horror he created found its way into reality. Since that time, he’s become a private man, concealing information about his family and relocating to America in the process.
He’s garnered a lot of success in that time as well, delving into bid-budget gambits with major studios, creating works like Pacific Rim and his 2015 period horror Crimson Peak. The Shape of Water functions as a maneuver back towards his art-house beginnings, recontextualizing another film he saw in his most formative years, Jack Arnold’s 1954 classic The Creature From the Black Lagoon.
A film that sprouts from the soil of Del Toro’s niche visualization of magical realism which involves a mute, isolated woman Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who’s employed by a top-secret government facility in early ’60s Baltimore. There, she meets a mysterious, scaled creature from South America that feels tethered to Arnold’s work but also to Del Toro and Dark Horse’s concoctions, as the creature bears a striking resemblance to Abe Sapien. This isn’t out of chance, as Del Toro went as far as to cast Doug Jones to play his new creature, the same man who brought Abe to life in 2004’s Hellboy.
Elisa develops a unique bond with her newfound friend, a misunderstood and misperceived gentle creature who befriends her and eventually falls in love with her. And the same level of craftsmanship is on-display by Toro throughout, mesmerizing you with a darkened and grimy Baltimore filled with those left behind and placed out of mind by the world around them, like that of the gay and similarly isolated Giles (Richard Jenkins) and the black and similarly oppressed Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Toro rehashes his unique utilization of multiplicity, as the ravishing iconography echoes the subjugation in which the surrounding characters endure and the placating subjugation of those that mainstream culture does not understand like that of the creature himself. All of which levies itself behind Elisa, who, like everyone else, is simply yearning for connection.
It’s a spellbinding work lifted by an even more enchanting score by Alexandre Desplat and the collective work of gifted actors and actresses. But Del Toro is the beholder of the mad mind in which this beautiful dark fantasy sprawls into our world as viewers and sponges for great stories.
I first discovered him with Pan’s Labyrinth. Studying and admiring the familiarity I felt as someone who was first beholden to the charm and enchantment of Neil Gaiman. Growing older, my fidelity for them becomes less of a question of entertainment but rather a pursuit of knowledge, yearning to understand their craft better and, hopefully, to induce their wisdom into my own fiction.
It’s hard to think of Guillermo Del Toro as a creator simply manifesting branches from a tree that links to his past; the universe he’s created and curated over the course of nearly four decades cannot be dwindled down to that of childhood imagination. His visions seem too grand for even the big screen, and his tales are far too maturated with lived experiences to be exclusively designated for children.
It’s an empire of the misshapen and misbegotten, a realm where the real and unreal intermingle, a creator who probes for beauty in the most forgotten of places. A palace I fell in love with a long time ago.