Guillermo Del Toro is as much a big kid playing with toys as he is a director, but with each film it feels like he’s inviting the viewer to play with him. Del Toro’s joyful enthusiasm shines through his lightest films, while his grimmest show his gifts as one of the best horror filmmakers working today, someone who plays knowingly with the history of the genre while still making it into something new.
8. “Mimic” (1997)
Del Toro’s studio debut had a famously contentious shoot, with Harvey Weinstein trying to get the director fired until star Mira Sorvino intervened and Del Toro going through the experience of his father’s kidnapping during the writing process. The stress shows: “Mimic” is a movie filled with fascinating ideas that it underutilizes and undersells, from the threat of infection due to a giant bug infestation to the idea that the bugs are so evolved that they can mimic humans (which they are terrible at). While most Del Toro films benefit from giving event he tiniest roles something memorable “Mimic” doesn’t even give its biggest performers (Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Charles S. Dutton, Giancarlo Gianini) much to do, mostly just turning them into monster food. With no one to care about, it mostly just feels like an atmospherically-directed but dull mishmash of better movies (“Aliens,” “Jurassic Park,” “Seven”).
7. “Blade II” (2002)
Del Toro’s second studio job was better, especially as a showcase for his love for the weirdest and the gooiest of monsters. Working on a script by David S. Goyer, Del Toro brought some of his best to life with the Reapers, vampires with zombie-like traits and a Frankenstein-style origin who swarm like the xenomorphs in “Aliens.” The action scenes here feel a bit too much like they’re part of the post-“Matrix” CGI-heavy trend, but Del Toro mitigates it by injecting moments of overt cartoonishness (Wesley Snipes giving a Wile E. Coyote look to the camera during a chase) and gloriously over-the-top violence (a camera zooming into a vampire’s body as his heart is pierced). It’s not a major Del Toro film, and the ending is too much of a dry run for “Hellboy II,” but it is often wildly entertaining.
6. “Hellboy” (2004)
Guillermo Del Toro was always moved by the outcast status of monsters (his favorite film: “Bride of Frankenstein”), so it makes sense that his comic book hero of choice might be the outcast monster who’s fighting for humanity. Ron Perlman is perfectly cast as the wiseass hero, but Del Toro frequently undercuts his machismo by showing how his “Lone hero thing” gets him into trouble and hurts people that it shouldn’t. He also grows here as a director of action, giving everything a greater weight and tactile feel than he did in “Blade II.” Above all else, Del Toro’s use of religious imagery doesn’t amount to posturing, but instead aspires to Frank Capra’s belief that Christianity is about second chances, and about rejecting temptation. After all, who’s more in need of second chances than the son of the devil?
5. “Cronos” (1993)
Del Toro made his first splash with this unconventional vampire film, in which Federico Luppi plays an antique store owner who discovers a 16th century device that prolongs life by drinking the blood of the user (who then must feed on blood to stay youthful). Del Toro’s interest in lovable oddballs got its start here, whether they’re benign (an eccentric coroner) or malevolent (Ron Perlman as an initially charming, then sinister henchman), and the Cronos device is one of Del Toro’s first great monsters. There’s more than a little bit of Cronenberg influence here – even Perlman’s thug is trying to reshape his own body with a nose-job, a sillier parallel to a story about how attempts to prolong life and change bodies makes us less human – but Del Toro’s personality always shines through, particularly in a moving ending that showcases the thematic throughline to all of Del Toro’s best films: self-sacrifice.
4. “Pacific Rim” (2013)
“Pacific Rim” split people who thought it was dumb fun and those who thought it was dumb, but in actuality it’s neither, a film that knows how ridiculous it is and plays knowingly to that. “Pacific Rim” is a delight not only for how beautifully Del Toro stages and composes the fight sequences, with colors blending into an impressionistic blur without losing their coherence (you hear me, Bay?), but also for being a blockbuster that stresses the importance of human survival. Many saw the “Top Gun” elements and groaned about the cliche of it, but Del Toro’s actually sending up the hotshots and stressing the importance of humanity cooperating throughout the film. Also: giant robots! Fighting giant monsters!
3. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008)
Del Toro made his most purely entertaining film with “Hellboy II,” which is still sometimes overshadowed by the other big superhero films of 2008 (“The Dark Knight,” “Iron Man”). But “Hellboy II” is the most inventive of the bunch, starting with a CGI wooden-puppet fairytale and continuing through a troll market, a giant army of golden machines, and a plant monster whose death becomes strangely moving when we learn it’s the last of its kind. Del Toro believes that most monsters are less evil beings and more animals threatened by humanity, and he creates his most sympathetic villain in Luke Goss’ prince, a man fighting for the survival of his people in the face of humanity’s unwitting destruction of them. He even manages the single most organic sequel set-up in comic book movie history (though we may never see “Hellboy III”). Many saw “Hellboy II” as a fun but disposable follow-up to “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but if you can watch Hellboy and sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) drunkenly sing “Can’t Smile Without You” without having your heart warmed, I have no words for you.
2. “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001)
The brother film to “Pan’s Labyrinth’s” sister film, “The Devil’s Backbone” sees its director coming closer to the emotional transcendence that he’d reach five years later. Between “Mimic” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” Del Toro grew exponentially as a master of space, often getting the most chilling moments by the simple use of framing (the protagonist’s head is in one position, and when it moves, the ghost is revealed in the background). The film’s ghost child is at once scary and gentle, something more akin to a dark fairytale than a horror story. That’s appropriate, given how, like in “Pan’s,” the real threat is earthly, a man without warmth who’s willing to take advantage of everything around him for his own gain, a perfect allegory for the period’s fascism. The film’s final shot, one of the most haunting in Del Toro’s career, wordlessly articulates that the horrors and the victims of the Spanish Civil War can never fully fade from the country’s history.
1. “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
Guillermo Del Toro’s best film is at once his most frightening and his most moving, an amalgamation of horror and fairytale tropes into a powerful story about the need to stand up against seemingly insurmountable evil. The director creates his most memorable and terrifying monsters (the faun and the Pale Man, both played by Doug Jones), but he makes them a secondary threat to Sergi Lopez’s ruthless fascist captain, a man so committed to order and procedure that he’s more clockwork than human (something Del Toro emphasizes in his shaving scenes, where the camera rotates around him like clockwork). In between these earthly and unearthly monsters, Del Toro places a child (Ivana Baquero), someone whose imagination pushes against the strict confines of her fascistic surroundings, and a number of strong supporting players (particularly Maribel Verdu) who learn, either through fantastical or realistic trials, of the need to question orders and sacrifice one’s own needs and wants for the needs of others. Del Toro will no doubt make many more entertaining, even moving films, but for sheer emotional power it’ll be difficult for him to top “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which ends on a note that’s as much of a moment of triumph as it is a gut-punch.
Odds and Ends: Included among the special features for “Cronos” is Del Toro’s short film “Geometria,” a charming O. Henry-style film about a boy who make a deal with the devil in order to escape taking his geometry exam. He’s also the co-creator of the TV series “The Strain,” based on his novel trilogy of the same name. The show is better enjoyed for its wonderful ickiness than anything else, but it delivers that in abundance.
But Del Toro’s as known for the projects he didn’t make or hasn’t made yet as he is for his films. Among the fascinating things he might make eventually: an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” (which was set to star Tom Cruise and be produced by James Cameron when Universal pulled the plug), an aborted adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo” in the 90s, “Hellboy III,” a stop-motion “Pinocchio” film, and adaptations of “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Frankenstein,” among other things. His next film, “Crimson Peak,” sees him working in horror mode again with a classical haunted house story. Count us in.