With Pacific Rim opening worldwide this weekend (read our glowing review of the film), now seemed as good a time as ever to revisit the films of revered geek auteur Guillermo del Toro. His first film in five years, in many ways, it represents the culmination of years of dedication to a specific style of filmmaking, with trends and motifs cultivated over a twenty-year career.
What’s initially so striking about del Toro’s films is the singular vision they all share. Here are eight films that could easily all exist within the same continuity, yet each represents a distinct entity. While, like any filmmaker, some efforts are more successful than others, it’s admirable to see an auteur like del Toro consistently march the beat of his own drum, refusing to play it safe, even when working within the Hollywood system.
But enough gushing, let’s get on with the show, shall we?
8.) Blade II
If there was ever going to be a film I had to pick as del Toro’s poorest, it was always going to be Blade II. While a superior sequel to the 1998 original, it still suffers from a lot of the same problems, chief among them a dull protagonist. Nothing about Blade is at all compelling in these films, and while there’s plenty of elaborate art direction and creature effects, the film feels like a hollow cartoon with little to offer, and in many ways, del Toro’s most impersonal film.
Mimic represents an odd point in the career of Guillermo del Toro. After coming off huge festival buzz for his debut feature, Cronos, del Toro was given the chance to direct a creature feature in Hollywood, one with the kind of budget that would allow for a lot of indulgence. Yet, as an untested voice within the studio system, del Toro found his vision completely compromised by men in suits. Still, the film boasts all of del Toro’s usual fetishes, insects, clockwork, and body horror, and a recent director’s cut has the film at least partially restoring his initial vision. It was an important lesson for the filmmaker, regardless of the final outcome.
6.) Hellboy II: The Golden Army
I was a little shocked with where this one landed for me. Back in 2008, I was certain that it was better than its predecessor, but a recent rewatch has me reversing that stance. Completely ditching the serious horror-fantasy tones of the first film, it plays as a straight up action-comedy with fantasy tropes. A mixed bag of some truly remarkable parts with some truly cornball moments, it was odd to see this one hold up less than I originally anticipated. The result is a charming adventure with memorable characters and a delicate balance of fun action, wondrous design, and earnest humor that has del Toro at his most light-hearted and goofy.
By contrast, the 2004 original is a much darker, nastier place to be, yet is always as earnest as any of del Toro’s films. Adapting characters from Mike Mignola’s comic book series, the film is a mixture of Lovecraft-ian horror and humorous action, with quite a bit of nuanced character work to boot. A tale of identity and destiny, the film gives the audience an admittedly flat “in” to explore this world of far more interesting characters and mythology, creating a dense, vivid world that I’m always chomping at the bit to see more of. It also has Ron Perlman, so it wins by default.
4.) Pacific Rim
Of all of del Toro’s American films, Pacific Rim is the first with him fully in control of everything on screen. As one colleague put it, it’s the first blockbuster in years that doesn’t feel designed by committee. An uncompromised love letter to anime, kaiju films, and Japanese monster cinema, del Toro’s vision is on display in every frame, breathing life into such a fully realized world with the kind of imagination rarely seen in blockbuster filmmaking these days. In an age of cynical IP mining, it’s a blast of fresh air to see something like this come out of the studio system completely in-tact and filled to the brim with joy and sincerity. Come for the cool characters, stay for the absolutely gargantuan battles.
Going back in time to del Toro’s first feature film was something of a revelation. Not because it was surprising to see how good it was, but just how much of a mission statement it was. Here was a filmmaker intent on creating monster movies with the utmost sincerity and determination to help us understand those monsters. It’s telling that del Toro often lists James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein as his favorite films, and that influence is never more apparent than when he’s dealing with monsters as his lead characters. Such is the case of Cronos, a poetic take on the vampire myth that grounds itself with an unassuming man thrust into being a vampire, only to find it equal parts blessing and curse. Most importantly, it’s a haunting tragedy that hailed the arrival of one of modern cinema’s most interesting artists.
2.) The Devil’s Backbone
After venturing into Hollywood with a less than stellar experience, del Toro returned to his roots, this time with the Spanish Civil War as the backdrop for his lyrical ghost story about vengeance death. In what may be his most modest film, del Toro crafts a tale of a spirit seeking justice amongst a whole community of lost souls, even if the ghost of Santi is the only one who is truly dead. Poetic and hopeful in moments of humanity, and horrifying in moments of haunted house terror, it’s a masterful evocation of loneliness and regret.
1.) Pan’s Labyrinth
Perhaps a predictable choice, but for a reason. Pan’s Labyrinth is no less than a masterpiece, the kind of film most filmmakers can only dream of making. A reflective look at the meaning of the fairytale from the perspective of a child, del Toro’s tragic story of the need to escape the horrors of reality is a thematically rich and potent film that should continue to endure for years as a modern classic. Bursting at the seems with vivid imagery, dense storytelling, and layered, nuanced characters, it’s the culmination of everything del Toro has ever strived to accomplish in cinema, and that pure expressionism is something to be cherished.