Guillermo del Toro loves monsters. He’s confessed this love in numerous interviews and said that the promise of a monster draws him to every project he does. But why monsters? What is about them that fires the mind of a creator like del Toro? Part of it is that monsters give a filmmaker the opportunity to make something bizarre, unsettling and visually captivating.
But I think there’s more to it. The best monster stories aren’t about the monster, but about humanity. Vampires and lust. Zombies and consumerism. Godzilla and nuclear holocaust. Many of the most iconic and enduring monsters stick around not because the monsters are fascinating (after all, zombies are possibly the most boring antagonists ever conceived), but because they provide us with intriguing insights into human nature.
Take del Toro’s debut film: Chronos. On the surface, it’s a story about a strange device that grants a man a new youth. The audience eventually discovers the device turning him into a vampire. What could have been a simple vampire story becomes del Toro connecting religious symbols and ideas with the lore of vampirism. He uses the guise of monsters to explore humanity’s fascination with religion and its conception of death and life.
His follow-up, and his first American film, Mimic is a classic science gone wrong story. An attempt to wipe out disease-ridden cockroaches results in a mutation of something far more monstrous. Here, humanity’s pursuit to control science too much results in something more dangerous and deadly than that which it seeks to control. The film questions the limits of human control and how much we attempt to control nature even though nature itself adapts in response to much in such a way that we can never hope to tame it, only to accelerate it.
In 2001, del Toro returns to Spain to make a ghost story. The Devil’s Backbone is perhaps his most fascinating use of a monster in his films. Here the monstrosity of a ghost child send chills down our spines, but del Toro uses the history of the orphanage that the ghost child haunts to reveal something much more monstrous. The greed of men in war and the bomb that killed the ghost child are the real monsters. He is an echo of the monstrosity of man; his victimization is monstrous because it visually represents the horrors of other men.
Jumping ahead in time, del Toro’s next Spanish production, Pan’s Labyrinth, similarly deals with the monstrosity of war by making the true antagonist of the film Captain Vidal, a brutal man looking to quash the band of rebels in his woods in the most violent way possible. Here, del Toro presents The Faun as a creepy creature, but one with ambiguous intent. The fairy world is one where everything is complicated and ambiguous. It’s the real world where the divides between good and evil are much clearer.
Between these two Spanish productions, del Toro made a couple of films based on pre-established properties. Blade II is intriguing in that the titular Blade seeks to wipe out the same evil of vampirism he has inside of himself. While he is quick to punish it and squash it when he sees it in others, when faced with the necessity of working alongside vampires, he has to face the fact he’s not so far removed from what he hates the most.
Hellboy deals with the classic nature vs. nurture debate. Hellboy, a demon from hell, just wants to be another one of the guys, but by birth he is the demon who will bring forth the apocalypse. Can he escape his heritage and maintain the good-natured lessons he learned from his human father or is he destined to fulfill the purpose of his birth. His short temper and arrogance makes the tensions between man and monster more intriguing and complicated.
Hellboy II follows similar territory, although this time through Hellboy’s claim through his royal lineage that would allow him a command of a powerful army. It remains to be seen if a third film will be made to resolve this issue. Given that Hellboy creator Mike Mignolia is still writing Hellboy comics and hasn’t resolved this theme in his books yet, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.
This brings us up to del Toro’s latest: Pacific Rim. At a glance, the film only uses the monsters as an external threat to a human-centric drama. At the risk of reading a bit too much into the film, I’ll suggest a reading that says del Toro contrasts the hive mind Kaijus with the conflicts of individualism in humans as a sort of corrective theme on his body of work. He uses this as a way to argue that humans as a collective people must ultimately concede and compromise in order to fight together. This is what makes them weaker, but it’s also what enables them to be unpredictable and overcome insurmountable odds.
Ultimately, like all good artists, del Toro is makes us consider who we are. Monsters allow him to explore the darker side of humanity, our vices and violence, our morbidities and monstrosities. Even in Pacific Rim, where the dives between good and evil are clearly drawn, del Toro uses monsters to tease out our weakness and frailty even as he finds strength in that weakness.