The horror genius of Guillermo del Toro

As The Strain comes to the UK, Ryan salutes its creator Guillermo del Toro’s peculiar talent for horror world-building…

Artists working in horror are intimately familiar with taboo subjects. This is, after all, a genre that thrives in the darker areas of human existence, where blood-sucking beings, premature burials, cannibals, torturers and necromancers lurk.

It’s little surprise, then,  that some horror writers and filmmakers focus on the nihilistic, downbeat areas of the genre, and often view humans as an innately nasty, irredeemable species capable of just about anything.

Not Guillermo del Toro, though.

Although evidently passionate about the genre – he even, famously, has a second house devoted to his collection of books, posters and other items of the macabre – del Toro’s approach to horror is unusually humanistic. His movies may be full of monsters, blood and glowering spectres, but there’s always a sense that he’s revelling in the yucky slipperiness of it all, like an inquisitive child fascinated by amphibians or insects crawling in the undergrowth.

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Del Toro’s playful approach to horror is all there to be seen in Cronos – the debut feature he directed while he was still a fresh-faced 29-year-old. In it, an old antiques dealer called Gris (Federico Lippi) encounters a beautiful yet quietly dangerous object. At first, the piece looks like an ornate brass fob watch, but Gris soon realises that tampering with it comes at a price: without warning, the thing springs to life, gripping his arm with insectoid claws and injecting him with something horrible.

Over the course of the film, Gris is transformed into a vampire with an unquenchable thirst for blood. Meanwhile, a dying businessman sends out his hired goon Angel (Ron Perlman) to fetch the ancient device, hoping that it will save him from his impending date with the Grim Reaper.

It all sounds dour and gothic, and in places Cronos is harsh and extremely violent – largely thanks to Perlman’s bone-crunching presence – but it also comes with a lightness of touch and more than a hint of black humour. That Gris resists his vampirism so robustly is a constant source of dramatic tension: there’s a scene where he’s suddenly smitten by a slick of blood on a bathroom floor, and we can only watch with a grimace as he gets down on his hands and knees and starts lapping at the puddle of claret.

Cronos also establishes del Toro’s now-familiar tactic of viewing a story through a child’s eyes. Throughout Cronos, Gris’ granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) serves as a silent observer of the old man’s transformation, and also his moral compass: even as his inner vampire takes hold, her innocence roots him with his own humanity.

Even on a relatively low budget of around $2m, Cronos demonstrates del Toro’s flair for horror in all its forms. There’s a definite Cronenbergian touch to Gris’ metamorphosis, a gleeful appetite for gore akin to Stuart Gordon or Peter Jackson, and also an interest in the gothic – as demonstrated by that beautifully designed antique vampire-maker, with its ornate flourishes and the elegant yet deadly sting in its tail.

Del Toro packed up just about all of this and ported it over to America for his English-language debut, Mimic (1997). An unabashed B-movie about giant cockroaches disguising themselves as humans and hiding in tunnels beneath Manhattan, it was compromised from the very beginning by a studio keen to have del Toro aboard as a director, yet oddly reluctant to trust his creative instincts.

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Despite this, Mimic contains much of del Toro’s keen eye for horror. The most effective scenes are shot from the perspective of a young boy, who quietly watches as the giant cockroaches move about in the shadows near his house. Those cockroaches are, by the by, great: when disguised, they look like a silhouette of a man in a long coat. The true form is revealed in a superb sequence on a New York subway, where one of these monstrosities breaks from its guise and chases Mira Sorvino down the platform.

Del Toro’s appetite for engagingly grotesque creature designs and a distinctly gothic atmosphere continued into his second English-language feature, Blade II (2002), which used Prague locations to singular effect. Although primarily an action film, Blade II was at its most effective when it delved into horror: the film’s new breed of Reaper Virus-infected vampires (led by Luke Goss) are a memorably icky creation.

In terms of world building, del Toro’s abilities found their purest expression in the Spanish language films he made in 2001 and 2006: The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Although their stories are markedly different, they’re united by their Spanish Civil War setting and, once again, their child’s-eye storytelling perspective.

The Devil’s Backbone is a ghost story and desolate mood piece about an orphanage in a remote part of Spain. The war rages somewhere on the horizon, but a gigantic, unexploded bomb squatting on the orphanage’s grounds is a reminder that danger is never far away. The film’s told from the viewpoint of Carlos (Fernando Tielve), a young orphan whose ghostly visions lead to the discovery of the orphanage’s terrible secret.

In the sense that it’s about a corrupt world seen through innocent eyes, Pan’s Labyrinth is entirely of a piece with The Devil’s Backbone. As black a fairytale as we’ve seen in recent cinema, it’s about a girl (played by Ivana Baquero) who, overwhelmed by the war raging around her – not to mention the cruelty of her fascist stepfather, Captain Vidal – escapes into an imaginary fantasy world with grim parallels to the real one.

These fantasy landscapes of fauns, giant toads and demonic beings with eyes in their hands fold into del Toro’s depiction of 1940s Spain without a seam. Tellingly, the real world he creates is far more savage and nasty than the one full of strange and sometimes terrifying monsters.

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This is probably because, in all his films, del Toro’s displayed a clear affection for the monsters he creates. There’s something loving about the weird societies he draws to life in such films as Hellboy and its sequel, The Golden Army. His fascination with oozing, inhuman things is probably informed by his enthusiasm for the fiction of HP Lovecraft, which is filled with florid descriptions of beings with leathery wings and tentacles.

Del Toro’s 2013 kaiju movie Pacific Rim wasn’t a horror film by any means, but he still found a scene or two where he could let his affection for gelatinous creatures run riot – most obviously, the grimly amusing one where a character is devoured by a giant monster’s newborn baby.

Del Toro’s next projects, meanwhile, plunge back into the world of horror with relish. First, there’s The Strain, a television series the filmmaker first pitched to Fox in 2006. When the proposal came to nothing, del Toro joined forces with writer Chuck Hogan to produce it as a series of novels: The Strain (2009), The Fall (2010) and The Night Eternal (2011).

Following the publication of the first book, The Strain was finally picked up for a series by FX. The series’ concept takes del Toro full circle, in that it’s his own take on vampire myths: detective Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) investigates the case of a planeload of (mostly) dead passengers, and learns that a vampire named The Master plans to bring the world to its knees with a deadly virus. A fusion of police procedural drama and Richard Matheson-style sci-fi horror, the pilot episode (directed by del Toro himself) effectively runs the gamut from restrained suspense to full-on gore – a talent he’s demonstrated in just about everything he’s made since 1993. There are even references back to Cronos and Blade II in here for keen-eyed devotees of del Toro’s output.

Back in the cinematic realm, del Toro has Crimson Peak currently in production. A haunted house movie in what he describes as the “classical gothic romance” sense, it’s also, he says, “a proper R rating,” with “two or three scenes that are really, really disturbing.” In other words, it’s likely to again offer del Toro’s personal mix of creeping suspense and flashes of extreme grue.

Beyond his talent for creating monsters, ornate pieces of evil-looking machinery, world-building and splashily violent set-pieces, there’s something else that defines del Toro’s horror, and it brings us to the topic we began with at the top of the page: his humanistic approach to the genre. Because while his films are reliably filled with all kinds of slithering things, monsters, blood and mayhem, they’re also balanced by a sense of wonderment and innocence.

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The children del Toro so often puts in the centre of his frame aren’t a mere storytelling device – they also appear to indicate the filmmaker’s own worldview. The most violent, corrupt and unpleasant characters in del Toro’s stories aren’t creatures, but most commonly ordinary, adult men – chief among them the merciless Captain Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth. Even the likeable old Gris from Cronos is brought to the brink of corruption by his desire to live beyond his years – his lust for blood is only halted when he claps eyes on his beloved granddaughter, and her innocence finally brings him to his senses.

It’s this perspective that gives del Toro’s horror depth as well as imagination: he frequently puts forward the notion that, as adults, we humans are capable of monstrous things, whether it’s accidentally creating a race of man-eating giant cockroaches, or carrying out dreadful acts of torture on prisoners of war. Our salvation, del Toro seems to say, lies in the childlike, innocent part of ourselves – the child who can marvel at fauns, giant cockroaches or humongous robots.

Through his horror, Del Toro looks into the darkness and finds hope.

The Strain starts in the UK on Wednesday the 17th of September (on Sky 109 and Virgin 124) on Watch.

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