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 Hobbit-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 pictures!

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 Labyrinth, 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 Geographic, 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 here.

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.