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The Spanish Films of Guillermo del Toro

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Guillermo del Toro is a Mexican director whose films I have been watching since I learned he was directing The Hobbit, which is being produced by Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a LOTR fanatic, I wanted to get a sense of how Del Toro might handle The Hobbit. This is the first of three reviews I hope to write on his work so far.

Del Toro’s directorial debut is Cronos (1993), a Mexican horror film. Made on a shoestring budget, Cronos is enormously impressive in style and substance, though there are some problematic scenes and occasional pacing problems (it deserves a big budget remake).

Cronos is a vampire movie, with a completely fresh take on the vampire mythos. The movie begins in Mexico 450 years ago. An alchemist and watchmaker has been appointed to the court of the Spanish Viceroy. There he creates an intricate golden clockwork scarab, the Cronos device (such devices have become a kind of signature in Del Toro’s movies, particularly the Hellboy films).

The purpose of the Cronos device is to halt the aging process, giving its user virtual immortality. The scarab’s legs clamp into one’s flesh, and a stinger resembling the scythe of Cronos penetrates a vein, pumping the blood through a mysterious filtration system and conferring renewed youth and vigor and even the power to return from the dead, so long as one’s heart is not pierced.

There are, however, side-effects, such as sensitivity to sunlight and—you see where this is going—an insatiable thirst for human blood.

Flash forward to the present. An elderly antiques dealer, Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) finds the Cronos device hidden in the base of a wooden statue of an angel. By accident, it becomes attached to his body, and the transformation begins to take place.

Unfortunately, there is another party who knows of the Cronos device, a wealthy industrialist named Dieter de la Guardia, a valetudinarian and hypochondriac who inhabits a fantastic sterile lair surrounded by vaporizers and statues of angels. A display case contains preserved organs removed from his body. The rest, he says, are “on the menu.” (Obsessive surgical self-mutilation appears in Hellboy and preserved bodies in The Devil’s Backbone.)

In spite of his misery, he wants to live forever. Having discovered the alchemist’s journal and learned of the hiding place of the Cronos device, he has sent his agents to scour Mexico for antique wooden angels. (The rejects adorn his sick room, draped in plastic tarps and suspended by their necks from chains.)

De la Guardia’s agents locate the statue at Mr. Gris’s shop, and De la Guardia’s nephew, ironically named Angel (and in a double irony played by the brutish Ron Perlman) is dispatched to purchase it. The secret compartment, however, is empty, and Angel is redeployed to retrieve the device from Mr. Gris. Fortunately, for all the horrors of the transformation it has begun, the device gives Mr. Gris the ability to fend off Angel’s attacks and protect his wife and orphaned granddaughter.

I will say no more about the plot, save that Jesús Gris remains an entirely admirable human being throughout his transformation into a monster. He is grateful for the gifts of the Cronos device, but he has the strength of character to refuse them when he realizes that he is becoming an entirely different sort of being, a being that has no interest in protecting his loved ones, indeed a being that is becoming a menace to their welfare.

Ron Perlman chooses a straighter nose

Ron Perlman chooses a straighter nose

Cronos is filled with suspenseful and cringe-inducing scenes as well as mordant wit. Imagine if the Coen brothers had directed a Mexican vampire movie (in fact, they should consider doing the remake). One particularly amusing touch is Ron Perlman’s obsession with getting a nose job. (Perlman is a favorite actor of Del Toro’s, appearing also in the Hellboy movies and Blade II.)

A theme established in Cronos that reappears in The Devil’s Backbone (El espinazo del diablo, 2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006) is the openness of children to the supernatural. Mr. Gris’ adorable granddaughter Aurora is uniquely attuned to her grandfather’s transformation, accepts it without fear, cares for him selflessly, and bravely helps him at every turn of his fight with the De la Guardias.

The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth focus primarily on children and the supernatural. They also share a common setting: Spain at the end of the Civil War. The Devil’s Backbone is set in 1939, when it was clear that Franco had won, but he had not yet established a grip on the whole country. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944, when Franco was firmly in control and only a few Communist partisans were holding out in remote locations.

The adult heroes of both movies are Communists, but the main protagonists are children who are open to and touched by the supernatural. Del Toro seems quite open himself. He is a lapsed Catholic, but that says nothing about his views of metaphysics or the spiritual in general. But this makes it hard to fathom the consistent anti-fascist, pro-Communist propaganda in these movies.

Communism and the occult seems a bad match, after all. Communism is a materialistic, rationalistic, egalitarian doctrine that denies the existence of higher realms and secret forms of knowledge available only to a few.

Fascism, however, is a good match for the occult. Its anti-rationalism (religious, romantic, mythic, and poetic) opens it to the supernatural, and its anti-egalitarianism opens it to initiatic and esoteric knowledge. (The confluence of fascism and the occult is an explicit theme of the first Hellboy movie, which is filled with “esoteric Hitlerist” touches, and even appears in more recondite forms in Hellboy: The Golden Army and Blade II.)

The Devil’s Backbone is my favorite Del Toro movie. It is set in an orphanage for boys run by two elderly Communists, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), an iron lady with a wooden leg, and Dr. Casares (Federico Luppi), an impotent poet in love with Carmen. The two are hiding a horde of Republican gold and caring for the orphans of fellow Communists. As Franco’s grip tightens, however, they decide they must take the gold and the children and flee to France.

But somebody has other plans:  Jacinto, the caretaker of the orphanage, who was raised there and feels enormous resentment towards Carmen and Dr. Casares. He knows of the gold and plots to steal it. Jacinto is a shockingly ruthless and brutal villain, brilliantly portrayed by the handsome Spanish actor Eduardo Noriega.

While the adults are occupied with politics and gold, the boys at the orphanage are chasing a ghost. The night a bomb fell in the courtyard of the orphanage, one of the boys went missing. When a new boy, Carlos, arrives at the orphanage, he sees the ghost of the missing boy and tries to learn the secret of his disappearance. As the movie unfolds, the two plot lines and levels of reality intersect in a shattering conclusion.

The Devil’s Backbone is rated the #5 horror movie of all time by the Rotten Tomatoes website. I think it is better described as a supernatural thriller. It is not so much frightening as mysterious, unsettling, and suspenseful. The only monsters are of the all-too-human variety. There is no computer animation, no flashy special effects. The core of this movie is a poetic script and well-developed characters beautifully portrayed, filmed with the earthy colors and warm light of a painting by Velásquez.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a visually dazzling movie, heavy on special effects and monsters, human as well as inhuman. A ten year old girl named Ofelia and her pregnant mother travel to a remote mountain outpost where her stepfather, Captain Vidal, is rooting out Communist partisans. Vidal is a terrifying villain: his methodical sadism and self-objectifying masochism are both products of superhuman willpower divorced from conscience (much like another psychopathic Übermensch, the Nazi Kroenen in Hellboy; both men transform their own bodies and tinker with clockworks with the same detachment).

While the adults are occupied with politics, Ofelia encounters fairies and a faun. The faun tells her that she may be the reincarnation of Princess Moanna of the Underground Realm. If she can prove her identity with three tests, she can return to her kingdom. Ofelia follows the faun’s instructions and has some harrowing adventures while the adults remain oblivious. Again, the two lines of plot and levels of reality are brilliantly orchestrated to come together in a powerful climax.

Some viewers think that Ofelia’s adventures were merely childish fantasies and wish-fulfillment. But that is a mistake. The adults in the movie think the same way, but they are wrong too. When her mother begins to sicken, the faun instructs Ofelia to use the magic of the mandrake root to heal her. She places it under her mother’s bed in a bowl of milk and feeds it two drops of blood each day. The mother’s health improves. However, when the mother discovers the root, she tells Ofelia that fairy tales and magic are not real and throws the root into the fire. As it writhes and screams in the flames, Ofelia’s mother goes into labor and dies in childbirth.

Magic and secret realms are not the only elements of Pan’s Labyrinth that do not accord with Communism. Ofelia, after all, is the reincarnation of a princess. She is the heiress of a kingdom, to which she struggles to return so she can take her place on the throne. The Communists, of course, repudiate monarchy and the very principle of hereditary right. At the end, when the Communists take Captain Vidal’s infant son from him, the Captain asks them to pass on a legacy. The Communists reply that the child will never even know his name.

Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro

Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairytale movie about a little girl, but under no circumstances should you show it to children. On both the natural and supernatural planes, it portrays brutal and terrifying violence. The violence of the film insures that the primary audience will be adults, i.e., the very sort of people who are closed to the magical realms it tries to reveal. For all its beauty and artistry, then, Pan’s Labyrinth is ultimately self-subverting because of fundamental incoherencies.

My conclusion is that Guillermo del Toro is a highly talented and imaginative director. He certainly has the technical and artistic skills to direct The Hobbit. I have, however, pointed out some deep problems with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. These might not matter, of course, since The Hobbit is J. R. R. Tolkien’s story, not Guillermo del Toro’s. Still, it gives me pause.

Having arrived at this conclusion, I learned that Del Toro has now bowed out of directing The Hobbit because of production delays, although he is still working on the script.

There is some talk—and some hope—that Peter Jackson might end up directing The Hobbit after all. It is his destiny. A lot of us will be greatly relieved when he stops trying to dodge it.

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One Comment

  1. Vlad Katonic
    Posted August 3, 2010 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    I’d much rather see Jackson’s Hobbit than Del Torro’s. My wife and I came away from Pan’s Labyrinth with little to commend it, although I wonder if a gulf exists between the Spanish original and the English subtitles that may explain some of the hollowness. For us, it merely seemed like propaganda dressed up in surrealistic landscapes and critters. A good spanish movie: [REC]. One of the best zombie flix that I’ve ever seen (far superior to the seemingly identical american remake called Quarantine).

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