Why this might not be so easy
Magic and myth, gods and monsters. If your personal tastes don’t naturally encompass the supernatural or fantastical, you might have overlooked Guillermo del Toro.
Of the ‘three amigos’ – Mexican directors Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón and del Toro – who helped expand 21st-century American cinema’s international horizons (the trio winning five out of six best director Oscars between 2013 and 2018), the latter seems at first easiest to pigeonhole. Until his latest, the film noir-inflected Nightmare Alley, he worked exclusively and unapologetically in certain genre cinema: sci-fi, horror, fantasy, action, superhero. He’s also the most classical in style, often eschewing the restless formal experimentation and showy technical innovation of his two brothers-in-arms.
You feel del Toro’s profound love for cinema and fantasy – from James Whale and Jean Cocteau to Carlo Collodi and H.P. Lovecraft – coursing through both his Spanish- and English-language work. It’s also there in his passionate advocacy of other filmmakers, past and present. But he makes no mere homages to his heroes. Del Toro conjures up lavish, fiercely personal visions: of vampires (Cronos, Blade II) and ghosts (The Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peak), worlds steeped in grand legend (Pacific Rim’s Japanese kaiju) or real history (Pan’s Labyrinth’s Spanish civil war backdrop).
Imagination, empathy and communion illuminate our way, and can ward off the dark desires lurking within us. It’s a cliché by now, but the misshapen monsters in del Toro’s films are often their most sympathetic figures, while (self-)righteous, sadistic men threaten to drag us down to hell.
If del Toro’s special effects mastery regularly brings forth terrifying apparitions and gruesome viscera, he also wears these fulsome, blood-spattered hearts on his sleeve. Swooning romance and undying love also abound, unconstrained by conventional notions of beauty (Hellboy) and including even different-species relationships (The Shape of Water).
Perhaps such extravagant extremes and idiosyncrasies are why del Toro has never had a film as commercially successful as Cuarón’s Gravity (let alone his Harry Potter entry), nor even Iñárritu’s The Revenant. But without his cinephile predilections, passion and artistry, modern moviemaking would be far less fabulous, in the true sense of the word.
The best place to start – The Shape of Water
Perhaps del Toro’s most widely accessible film, The Shape of Water (2017) is also his most unabashed, full-blown love story. At a secret US laboratory in the 1960s, a captured amphibian humanoid is subjected to cruel experiments for potential military gain. Only Sally Hawkins’ lonely mute cleaning lady Elisa treats him with kindness. Eventually their covert connection, and growing attraction, leads to a daring escape plan, with Michael Shannon’s sadistic government agent on their trail.
Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor crafted a dark valentine to outsiders largely shunned, or even persecuted, by mainstream society, and how the power of soulful union and creativity can trump Cold War paranoia. It’s also a love letter to the movies: Elisa lives above a rundown cinema and her fantasies are often film-inspired, while Doug Jones’ amphibian-man bears an uncanny resemblance to the titular beast in 1950s B-picture Creature from the Black Lagoon.
It’s also masterful moviemaking itself, with camerawork, art direction, sound design and score all beautifully coalescing in a genuinely adult fairytale (del Toro doesn’t shy away from the couple’s sexual desires). It’s easily one of the best – and strangest – best picture Oscar winners in a long time.
What to watch next
Del Toro’s Spanish-language films might be less familiar to English-language audiences, but the exception is surely what many consider his masterpiece, 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Where The Shape of Water could conceivably switch its amphibian protagonist to, say, a victimised human and still largely tell the same tale, Pan’s Labyrinth sees its director fully embracing the uncanny, with the eponymous faun, fairies, a magical maze and horrific subterranean monsters (The Pale Man, eyes embedded in his spindly hands, is pure nightmare fuel).
What’s so astounding about the film is that it’s also grounded in Franco’s war-torn 1940s Spain. As such, the fantasy elements might only be happening in the abundant imagination of young, bookish Ofelia, as she tries to stand up to fascism and protect her own family from her stepfather, a cruel army captain.
Del Toro weaves history and fantasy into a shimmering, seamless fabric, rippling with dream logic and symbolism. It’s like a descendant of an earlier Spanish classic, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), beloved by del Toro for its harnessing of cinema, specifically James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, as a potent allegory about national turmoil. Lyrical and brutal, heartbreaking and life-affirming, Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie inside which you can lose – and maybe find – yourself.
Under-seen and underrated, 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone is in some way the flipside, and maybe even the equal, to Pan’s Labyrinth. Here del Toro gives us a young boy in a broken civil war world, and a haunted orphanage where restless ghosts rise up against yet more sadistic abusers of power. It’s another dextrous fable, steeped in psychological and political implications – the unexploded bomb in the middle of the playground is a stunningly resonant image.
Meanwhile, del Toro’s remarkably assured feature debut, Cronos (1993), is a mournful, slow-burn Mexican story of longing for eternal life, which takes vampire mythology in unexpected, poignant directions.
Del Toro can handle outrageous, adrenalised, Hollywood spectacle with equal aplomb. Blade II (2002), with Wesley Snipes’ Marvel-based half-vampire ‘daywalker’, is pure pop-noir action, gleefully gruesome and easily the most stylish of its trilogy.
The director’s love for Mike Mignola’s comic-book paranormal investigator demon resulted in two of the most offbeat super (anti-)hero movies of all time. Hellboy (2004) and especially its delirious sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) are visually astounding, vividly kinetic and wildly romantic, with del Toro regular Ron Perlman indelible as the wise-cracking, cigar-chomping, crimson-skinned good guy from the lower depths.
Even his epic giant-robots-vs-giant-Godzilla-esque-lizards extravaganza, Pacific Rim (2013), is so big-hearted and fleet-footed that it shows up the woeful Transformers franchise for the leering, lumbering junk it is.
His new film, Nightmare Alley, based on William Lindsay Gresham’s poetic pulp 1946 novel and the Tyrone Power-starring 1947 movie adaptation, foregrounds charlatans Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, whose mind-reading illusion schemes are a con trick. On one hand it’s a departure for a filmmaker who so earnestly and fervently offers his audiences real enchantment. Yet it’s also pure Guillermo del Toro, the work of a true believer and practitioner in the lure and lore of cinema.
Where not to start
One of many young talents to come unstuck against the Weinstein brothers early in his career, del Toro has been vocal about his unhappy experiences making bug hunt creature feature Mimic (1997), though the film itself is far better, and more socially conscious, than many of its ilk. Crimson Peak (2015) perhaps disappointed those expecting an icy horror rather than its full-blooded gothic melodrama (think more Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca than Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House), but its bruised, heartfelt melancholy still cuts deep for those on its wavelength.
Nightmare Alley is in cinemas now.