The fascinating and often bizarre imagination of Guillermo del Toro must be a wonderful place to live. Since he first terrified audiences with the bloody, tragic quest for eternal life in Cronos, the director has gone on to freak us out with monster cockroaches, boost our adrenaline with kaiju and vampire hunters, make some of the best comic book movies that have ever leaped off the page, and conjure phantoms and demons to keep infiltrating our nightmares.
Del Toro’s films are dark storybooks that have had life breathed into them. His work is characterized by fantasy and horror themes fleshed out with stunning visuals, unreal special effects, and an obsession with everything creepy and crawly (and often dead). His inspirations range from Frankenstein to folklore to insects and movie monsters of all species. What may have started off as a boyhood dream or a sketch in a notebook later manifests itself onscreen as a porcelain-faced ghost with an empty stare or a fungal Lovecraftian thing with too many eyes.
As the director’s newest fantasia, The Shape of Water, approaches, we’ve undertaken the almost impossible task of ranking every other film the cinematic magician and mad scientist has ever made.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Stomping its way into the summer box office, del Toro’s first venture into kaiju and mech movies was just as enormous as its monsters and Jaegers, sinking its teeth into what would be his highest opening weekend ever. Despite some critics believing the film was a blast of CGI with no substance, it took audiences on a color-saturated thrill ride of screeching beasts, futuristic tech and bombastic special effects that roared to life in a dystopian Hong Kong. If some of those beasts look vaguely Lovecraftian, they are. Del Toro incorporated some of his designs from his unrealized vision for At the Mountains of Madness into extra appendages or that tentacled kaiju brain floating in formaldehyde.
Roaches on steroids infest this horrorshow of bio-experiments and subterranean tunnels that spawned a mutant bug no exterminator could possibly destroy. Del Toro’s curious obsession with insects, shadows and embryonic things is apparent in those monster egg sacs that birth mucus-covered killer cockroaches in the sewer sludge of Manhattan. These creepy crawlies start out as a hybrid species meant to obliterate the roaches skittering in New York’s subway tunnels evolve to mimic their most hated adversary—humans. Which leads to human-size roaches. Which leads to nightmare fuel. Even with that kind of fear factor, the director was dissatisfied with the released version of the film, which did not even break its $30 million budget domestically.
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Decrepit houses, encroaching darkness, entities that are neither dead nor alive—these are all trademarks of del Toro’s that crept into the third film of his Spanish-language trilogy that includes Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth. Wartime orphan boys realize that there really are such things as ghosts as they unravel the brutal murder of one of their own among dust and ruins. That porcelain-faced ghost that appears after dark to a frightened Carlos will haunt your dreams for weeks. The director was indecisive about what form his villain should take before deciding on a human more monstrous than any phantom or demon. He actually wrote a biography of the troubled and often sociopathic Jacinto to help actor Eduardo Noriega get into character.
Blade II (2002)
Before Hellboy, comic book aficionado del Toro took the Blade franchise through a whole other level of hell in what is arguably the best installment in the trilogy. Marvel’s half-vampire daywalker seemed to jump right out of the pages because the director was adamant about sticking to the comic. He also insisted on not breaking the continuation between the first and second film, so much so that he watched the VHS tapes (which were not totally obsolete yet) over and over again until he felt Blade’s universe was stylistically pulsing through his veins. Seething with bloodsuckers, mad scientists and undercover operations to kill or be killed, this is one of those movies where vampires don’t sparkle.
When Mike Mignola himself says he’s thrilled at how you adapted his work into live action, you know you’re doing something right. There also couldn’t have been anyone better suited to play the smart-talking, sucker-punching, beer-swigging, cigar-chomping hero than serial del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman. Hellboy manages to stay away from the formulaic nature of many comic book movies with its merging of Mignola’s otherworldy story and del Toro’s signature darkness that casts an even eerier shadow over World War II-Era remnants and tentacled things that would have been better off left undisturbed. The director himself was behind those believable creatures; before going behind the camera, del Toro spent years studying makeup and special effects.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Rarely is a movie sequel actually better than the original, but this fantastical follow-up to 2004’s Hellboy merges sci-fi with the myths and legends that inspired both Mignola and del Toro as they joined forces in their second collab. Elves and trolls mingle with mutants in a fight to keep humanity from being destroyed by an army of what look like steampunk skeleton robots. There is also an obvious influence of Pan’s Labyrinth, which was released just two years before, on the aesthetic. Several creatures in this dark fairytale could pass for mutations of the Pale Man, and those fairies could be a subspecies of the ones that get caught in his jaws during that fateful dining room scene.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
This warped Alice in Wonderland, where a little girl who is told she is the reincarnation of a princess must complete three tasks to be granted immortal life, started as sketches in the director’s notebooks and turned into one of his greatest cinematic triumphs. Lewis Carrol’s twisted tale isn’t the only thing that inspired the director to go down the rabbit hole. Among his other influences were the ethereal art of Arthur Rackham and childhood dreams in which a faun (one of those mythological half-man, half-goat-looking forest creatures) would creep out from behind his grandfather’s clock. The nightmarish fairy-eating Pale Man was based on a Japanese yokai known as Tenome, which literally means “eyes on hands”.
Crimson Peak (2015)
Finding the exquisite in the grotesque and the grotesque in the exquisite is a strength of del Toro’s that blooms like a carnivorous flower in this masterpiece of modern Gothic horror, which is fraught with ghosts, secrets and unspeakable horrors. The set and costumes were both so elaborate that special design considerations had to be taken into account depending on the scene. When Edith floats into Allerdale Hall, the servants’ costumes deliberately match the gloomy atmosphere so she appears as a butterfly among moths. Critics praised Crimson Peak as the best del Toro film since Pan’s Labyrinth, though some were so overcome by the grandiose nature of the visuals they were unable to see through to the symbolism lying beneath.
Terror. Transformation. The quest for immortality. Cronos was del Toro’s first feature film that has kept itself alive as his magnum opus of horror that has also been recognized as one of the all-time greatest films in the genre. The gore in this film is unapologetically raw but never excessive to the telling of a particularly brutal story. It also uses religious imagery and references in the most terrifying way, especially in that unforgettable church scene that brings the angelic and the demonic together in blood. If those creepy archangel statues don’t give you chills from the beginning, the realization of exactly what the Cronos device hidden inside one of them does will keep you awake for nights on end.