Early del Toro

Before del Toro started making kaiju or comic book flicks, he spear-headed a trio of other interesting films. Cronos, his Spanish-language first feature, offers a unique twist on the vampire tale, when a white-haired old gentleman who runs an antique shop full of ticking clocks activates a golden scarab that locks itself to his hand with mechanical beetle legs.

Cronos would see del Toro hook up with two of his most fruitful collaborators: the late actor Federico Luppi, and a young Ron Perlman. In this movie, the monster is yet again a man whose skin peels away to reveal a hidden layer of alabaster underneath, as if his flesh were just a cocoon worn by something ancient and inhuman. Yes, blood is licked off the floor of a public restroom in this movie. Why wouldn’t it be?

del Toro’s second feature, Mimic, is a film that was famously comprised by interference from Bob and Harvey Weinstein back when the brothers were still controlling Miramax. The director’s cut restores some of del Toro’s creative vision and remains one of those ‘90s flicks that holds the faces of future stars and still manages to be engrossing despite its flaws. That the cast includes Charles S. Dutton would only seem to further position it as a corollary to Alien 3, another creature feature that saw an up-and-coming auteur (in this case, David Fincher) undergo a trial-by-fire thanks to studio meddling.

More B-movie than blockbuster, the plot of Mimic revolves around genetically engineered super cockroaches that have evolved to mimic humans. This is del Toro at his ickiest. In a weird way, the film almost plays now like an early sketch for The Strain, the FX television series that del Toro co-created (he also directed the pilot episode). That show, too, was set in a Manhattan where monsters who lived underground faced resistance from a ragtag band of CDC doctors, beautiful, brainy blondes, and blue-collar types with a working knowledge of subterranean New York.

The rough experience of his English-language studio film debut sent Del Toro back to the drawing board, where he would utilize a smaller budget to craft another Spanish-language feature. His third film, The Devil’s Backbone, ranks as one of his very best.

Set in a haunted orphanage where a bomb dropped from the sky rests defused in the courtyard and pickled fetus jars sit on tables in the doctor’s office, the film unfurls a beguiling tapestry of interconnected stories where the humans are as much ghosts as the spooky ghost boy who can be seen wandering around the place. “Suspended in time, like a blurred photograph, like an insect trapped in amber,” each character is confined by their present set of circumstances while struggling with the weight of the past. The ghost just happens to be an especially frightening physical manifestation of that.

The Door to del Toro

The Devil’s Backbone is a film I might never have discovered were it not for Pacific Rim. Yet it’s a film that ranks right up there with the widely celebrated Pan’s Labyrinth in del Toro’s filmography. Both films are set in a Spain where the consequences of civil war impinge on the lives of innocent civilians. del Toro has even called Pan’s Labyrinth a spiritual successor to The Devil’s Backbone. Yet it wasn’t until seeing the latter film that I had the impetus to rediscover the former film, gaining a new appreciation for it as a mournful masterpiece.

In a roundabout way, Pacific Rim is also the film that reintroduced me to Pan’s Labyrinth, just as it introduced me to del Toro’s early work and reintroduced me to the Hellboy films. Of course, when juxtaposed against the heart-wrenching fantasy-versus-reality narrative of Pan’s Labyrinth, all the mech-versus-monster action in Pacific Rim doesn’t add up to much in the way of thematic depth. But not every film has to be enjoyed on that level. Some films can just be enjoyed on the level of pure spectacle, and Pacific Rim, which is still del Toro’s most commercially successful movie worldwide, is a prime example of that. It’s not his best film, but it is his biggest, and for me, it was the door to del Toro.

I don’t know if Pacific Rim: Uprising, the sequel helmed by first-time feature filmmaker Steven S. DeKnight (showrunner of the first season of Daredevil), will be able to capture the same unbridled love-of-kaiju magic that makes the first film pop so vibrantly. But hey, even if it disappoints, there’s always the original to rewatch, not to mention some of the other films referenced throughout this ode to cinema’s foremost purveyor of monster tales. What better way to close out the month of his Oscar win than with a Guillermo del Toro marathon?

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