Guillermo del Toro has long been one of my favourite story-tellers even though he makes movies that, technically, I shouldn’t care to see. He operates mostly within genres – horror and fantasy being his favourite, and generally, my least favourite. But I’ve been drawn in by the visual spectacle. There is beauty in everything he creates. It sparks my imagination, as it so clearly springs from his. Sean hasn’t seen as much of his catalogue as I have but I hesitate to rewatch them with him because to be honest, lots of his movies have genuinely scared me. It’s not the monsters or the horror that’s scary, it’s del Toro’s excellent world-building. You can get lost in the details, and that’s what haunts me. These fabulous details really fuck with me: anyone can create a monster, but when that monster has a horrifying little trinket on a shelf in his cave, that thing whispers to me, sticks with me.
Del Toro grew up in Mexico, raised by a strict Catholic grandmother who tried to exorcise him (twice) because of the monsters that sprang from his pen. Sean and I were in Toronto this weekend where the Art Gallery of Ontario is hosting a special exhibit on Guillermo del Toro called At Home With Monsters. Del Toro’s visual panache extends well outside the bounds of his film making. The themes that so often crop up in his movies appeal to him in his real life as well: religion, death, magic and alchemy, gods and monsters, insects and their symbolism, gothic detailing. He’s obsessed with Charles Dickens, Frankenstein, and macabre art – so much so that when his collection overwhelmed his home, he bought two more just to house the stuff. Adjoining the two houses, which he calls Bleak House, it has become a museum of sorts, stuffed to the gills with every crazy thing that’s ever inspired him. And now he’s curated from among his pieces and sent them out into the world for the rest of us to enjoy and think over. The exhibit comprises some 400 pieces – just 10% of his collection, but still more vast than I had anticipated, and it includes story boards, props, and costumes from his movies. It runs in Toronto until January 7th so you should really check it out if you can. If you can’t, you can try to console yourself with just a small sampling below.
Del Toro based the Pale Man’s face on the underside of a manta ray – as a kid he found the fish’s tiny mouth and nostril slits frightening. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the Pale Man consumes fairies and children, but in today’s political climate del Toro sees his creation as an example of predatory white male supremacy. Just after the 2017 US Presidential inauguration, he tweeted “The Pale Man represents all institutional evil feeding on the helpless. It’s not accidental that he is a) Pale b) a Man He’s thriving now”
There’s also a piece about how del Toro believes that simply moving the eyes creates a monster. It gave me shivers: he’s not wrong, is he?
Kate Hawley did the wonderful costumes for Crimson Peak. Her team spent 8 weeks on the leaf motif of Jessica Chastain’s blue dress alone. Period pieces are always a challenge, but for this movie, with del Toro always wanting more more more, every piece had to be created from scratch, often taking inspiration and silhouettes from real life vintage pieces but being made more dramatic, with more fabric and volume than would have been historically accurate, strictly speaking.
This you may recognize as the Angel of Death from Hellboy II: The Golden Angel. Again del Toro has simply moved the eyes to instantly create monstrosity. We learn as babies to expect two eyes, and when we don’t find them where they should be, it’s instantly disorienting. He drew inspiration from the archangels of medieval manuscripts, which had eyes on the feathers of their wings. The Angel of Death has a bony faceplate and misplaced eyes, making it literally blind to human suffering – the opposite of what we think a ‘guardian’ angel should be, which throws us off balance. Del Toro is really, really good at that. He defies and challenges our expectations.
Wooden puppets created by Simon Verela for The Book of Life. Guillermo del Toro’s works are always about death in one way or another, and his dead characters don’t often stay dead. But The Book of Life is actually a celebration of life, and a vibrant tribute to Mexican folklore.
Yes, that enormous Frankenstein head really does usually hang in the entrance of Guillermo del Toro’s home. Frankenstein is his favourite movie monster and his memorabilia is plentiful. “Frankenstein, to me, is instrumental in the way I see the world…It is the essential narrative of the fall of man into an imperfect world by an uncaring creator.”
The Faun, from Pan’s Labyrinth, was inspired by del Toro’s recurring childhood dream (nightmare?) of a goat-faced figure who slowly emerged from behind his armoire. In the film, the Faun is intended as neither good nor evil, like nature, he is there to witness but has no agenda – he literally doesn’t care whether Ofelia lives or dies.
These are part of a distinctly sad collection in the exhibit – concept art from a movie that never got made. HP Lovecraft has always been a huge inspiration in everything that del Toro does, and he spent a decade adapting Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness for the screen. In fact he and his studios have created over 400 pieces of art, part of the pitch they presented over and over to studios, who have rejected his wish for an R-rated tentpole horror with no love story or happy ending (even with Tom Cruise and James Cameron on board to produce). With Oscar buzzing around his The Shape of Water, will del Toro’s At The Mountains of Madness finally get made, or will this always be the one that got away?
Anything here look familiar? Aside from his influences, this exhibit covers all of Guillermo del Toro’s movies except his most recent. Which ones can you identify?