Guillermo Del Toro. The name conjures images of haunted forests, eerie slender people (think the ghosts from Crimson Peak or the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth), and layered elements of fantasy and fairy tales. He’s a jolly man that tends to have a reach that exceeds his grasp, especially when you delve into all the projects he’s failed to get off the ground, but the scope of his imagination is limited only by budgets and timing. His well-deserved Oscar win in 2018 for The Shape of Water was a landmark moment for weirder directors, putting the hope back out there that we can still see films that odd gain mainstream attention. After dealing with everything from kidnapped family members to Hollywood politics, seeing Del Toro land a career-defining award like that truly made my heart sing. This week I’m ranking his films from top to bottom and discussing what I do and don’t love about them.
10. Mimic : As much as I adore Del Toro I’m not too big of a fan of Mimic. I think his visual flair and love for costuming (as well as Doug Jones) is highly present, but the overall product just doesn’t have the same impact as virtually anything else in his catalog. This isn’t a bad film, but when your subject material deals with highly intelligent, genetically-altered cockroaches then the film needs to be more interesting to watch. Del Toro was famously unhappy with the release, citing studio interference and lack of final cut as major problems. There was a director’s cut put out in 2001, but even that isn’t enough to save this one. It’s a mess. An entertaining mess, but a mess all the same.
09. Blade II : Franchises often need a certain voice to bring them around to feeling like a real vision. Del Toro got ahold of this one and took a successful film to crank out a dynamite sequel. Blade was one of the first comic book movies to truly give the genre box-office success, and the sequel brought some critical success as well. After two wondrous Spanish-language films and the studio-laden disaster that was Mimic, Del Toro was given more reign in the visuals with this film, opting to follow the script while making his imagery resemble Japanese Animation. Studying the original, he meshed together his own stylings with those of original director Stephen Norrington to create a fun film and an early sign of what was to come from his work in Hollywood.
08. Pacific Rim : I was promised kaiju and giant robots beating the hell out of each other and was not disappointed one bit! Again pulling from Japanese influences, Del Toro got to live out the dreams of many a little child (or adult…) playing with toys in a sandbox, but he got to put it out there for all of us to watch! Thematically playing with the ideas of complete trust, elimination of boundaries between sexes/races/ideologies/personalities, and an anti-war subtext, the director painted a picture of human interaction that somehow felt more personal when wrapped in giant robots than it did when the characters sat face-to-face. This is far from a perfect film, but it’s a lot of fun masking a truly direct message about how we view each other and how we should be bonding.
07. The Shape of Water : I know, probably surprising that I placed the Oscar-winning film this low, but I just enjoy other entries in his catalog more. That definitely isn’t a knock against The Shape of Water, it’s an incredible film that follows his themes of interaction and love between unlikely matches. “Grinding Nemo” jokes aside, the film boldly makes use of ideas behind the destruction of the American Dream, gender politics, and the true nature of evil. It features a low-key stellar cast, each of them working to create believable interactions in a film about a woman who is sexually attracted to a fish-man, and by the end of the film I’d bought in completely. Del Toro’s use of location, small plot points, and coloration all serve only to hold up the cast and script. It’s beautiful, and will quickly become a favorite amongst the director’s fans.
06. Hellboy : This might be the first time the director played with the idea of love between unlikely bedfellows, but this was very different. Mike Mignola’s gorgeous comic book character is brought to life but heavily altered to fit Del Toro’s sensibilities and interests. You’ll see early shades of The Shape of Water buried in this one, with Abe Sapien featuring a similar look and the story’s themes following some familiar beats. I say all this and haven’t yet mentioned that this film is also about a devil-man that is destined to destroy the Earth by unwillingly aiding Lovecraftian nightmare-creatures from beyond the stars. Doesn’t that just sound like a blast? Films like this are a lost art; charming and endearing comic book films that feel out of time. I miss when there were loving, fun little film adaptations like this.
05. Hellboy II – The Golden Army : I genuinely enjoy this one more than the first film. The danger is scaled back, meant to feel like a breath of fresh air before the final plunge that we never got, and it is a lot more fun for that reason. It’s visually going further and more batshit crazy than the 2004 film, and Del Toro is completely unleashed now. Fresh off multiple Oscar wins and several other awards for Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro was given a lot more freedom to truly make this his own film and we all win from that. Ron Perlman is chewing scenery with Doug Jones, Selma Blair is charming, and Luke Gross is using a lot of makeup to craft a fantastic villain character. Del Toro had already hit his stride, but this one hurt on release because general audiences ignored it. This resulted in the planned third film being scrapped and I’m still mad at all of you for that…
04. Cronos : Isn’t it marvelous that in 1993, for a low-budget Mexican film, Del Toro still managed to cast Ron Perlman? Brotherly love is a beautiful thing. A modern take on the vampire film, Cronos explores one man’s slow and steady descent into the night after he’s pricked by a legendary device discovered in his pawnshop. His adorable granddaughter notices that his vitality is spiking and worries. Honestly, this is a really adorable little movie, particularly notable since it’s also a bloody vampire film with horrific moments that blend with comedy effortlessly. Even though this is his debut, Cronos feels so blatantly “Del Toro” that its surprising to many to learn how early his voice developed. His dark sense of humor, his genuine love of fairy tale elements, and his unique abilities to create Mexican films that appeal to American audiences were apparent so damned quick.
03. Pan’s Labyrinth : You can already hear the intro music in your head. I know you can. I got taken to this by a buddy in 2006, sold on it as a dark fairy tale by some guy I’d never heard of. See, I came to Del Toro here. I hadn’t yet seen Hellboy or Blade or Mimic, and I didn’t have access to his Spanish films yet. Sitting there in a darkened theatre, a pastiche of modern takes on classics by the Brothers Grimm, something woke up in me. Despite how brutal it can be, this is also a sweet little film that can warm the heart as it chills the blood. Do you think she was a princess or not? Everyone has a different opinion on the film’s ending, but the ride is an important part and it’s absolutely beautiful. Del Toro has crafted other films this complex, but Pan’s Labyrinth remains the most beautiful of his more serious-minded films.
02. Crimson Peak : I adore this one. Del Toro hasn’t designed anything this visually intricate before or since, weaving together sets with costume design and CGI to create a cohesive and gorgeous melding of environments and performances. Looking at the way the characters behavior, designs, and clothing all mesh with their motivations and locations is such a wonderful visual feast. Anything but subtle, Del Toro goes even further with his blatant dialogue and characterization in ways that bothered some viewers, but I ate it all up and sat back with a full belly and a satisfied mind. Mia Wasikowski is one of the best actresses of her generation and she’s constantly misused or miscast. Del Toro was able to dig in and bring out a fantastic performance from her, helping her stand up and be on the level of co-stars Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. The final product is an impressive feature and one that I hope will be remembered more fondly in the future than it was treated on release.
01. The Devil’s Backbone : Yup, this one’s my personal favorite. Something about a bunch of boys trying to survive the insanity of a religious boarding academy just appeals to me (for those unaware that’s how I was raised). Del Toro’s design work was incredible here, his use of actual Spanish tile and imagery from the country’s civil war-era really adding to the atmosphere. Oh, and did I forget to mention that there’s a live bomb in the courtyard of the school? That’s important. Haunting is a huge theme, stated as the opening line, “What is a ghost?” The school, the characters, they’re all haunted both literally and figuratively by not only the past but the violent present they live in. Fascism won the Spanish Civil War, but it’s humanity that was always the villain and Del Toro embraces this tightly. Depraved, heartbreaking, gorgeous, and touching, The Devil’s Backbone is something special and has been my favorite Del Toro film since the first time I came across it.
That’s my list! I’m curious, what’s yours? I know several would rank much differently than I would, and I want to hear from you on that!