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Guillermo Del Toro – Man Of Vision

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has had a very interesting film career.  In recent years, he’s been a writer, producer and creative consultant on films as diverse as Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, The Hobbit, Splice and even kid’s fare like Rise Of The Guardians and Kung Fu Panda 2.  As a director, he’s shown time and again a strong ability to handle both big budget spectacle, and smaller, but more personal projects, with his signature style and vision. With his latest film, Pacific Rim, out this week, Ed Boff explores his previous directorial efforts.

Cronos
Del Toro’s first full -length feature was a quite ambitious but ultimately very successful alternative take on the vampire legend.  An antique dealer (Federico Luppi) finds in an old statue a device made by a Sixteenth Century alchemist that offers eternal life; but using it has some major side effects.  Almost all of del Torro’s hallmarks as a director are in this story, from a child’s perspective on events, to the art design of the Cronos device, to insect imagery and the presence of Ron Perlman.  Many clever touches to the script include musings on the meaning of the term vampire, as something that draws the vitality of others to live, along with a parallel between vampirism and the US-Mexico relationship

Mimic
To combat a lethal epidemic in New York, biologist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) releases a genetically engineered new “Judas Breed” of cockroaches. It works, but years later, there have been some major consequences.  Based very loosely on a short story by Donald A. Wollheim, this was del Toro‘s first big studio project; unfortunately it turned out to be a somewhat tense experience for him, as there was quite a lot of studio interference from Dimension Pictures pretty much from the word go.  The result is an odd schizophrenia with the film trying to be just another monsters on the loose/Alien knock-off on the one hand, but something more on the other.  Nevertheless, this is a strong monster movie (something the ‘90s was in very short supply of),that explores some very bold ideas, including a surprisingly balanced view on the role of science in these events.  Also, the recent director’s cut released on Blu-ray does improve things quite dramatically and it’s much clearer what del Toro was going for all along.

The Devil’s Backbone
Coming at a time when the cinematic ghost story was making something of a comeback (The Sixth Sense, The Others…), this especially personal project for del Toro stands out by its setting of the Spanish Civil War.  At an orphanage/school for children of Republican fighters, the boys are haunted by a figure they simply call “he who sighs”; but should they fear him, or is he a warning of a far more urgent danger?  This film performs an impressive balancing act, of telling a war story, a coming of age story, and of course a ghost story all in one, and pulling them all off extremely well.  It’s worth noting that setting a Spanish production during the Civil War was a very bold move, as it’s a time period that Spain is still extremely uneasy about discussing.  Emotional, brave and with perhaps the best looking on-screen ghost ever, this is the one that really got people paying attention!

Blade II
The first Blade movie was quite a success and it’s debatably the title that got the ball rolling on comic books movies that lead to … well, where blockbusters are today.  Bringing del Toro in for the sequel was a damn good move, as this film is not just better than its predecessor but easily the best film of the franchise. Half-vampire Blade (Wesley Snipes) is recruited by the vampires to stop a new breed, the reaper strain, that threatens to consume human and vampire alike; and to do so, he must team up with a squad especially trained to hunt him down.  This film, while being an extension of an existing franchise, does still give del Toro plenty of material to bring in his own signature touches.  Of especial note are the creature and gore effects that are not only creative and achieved well but the look of the “Reapers” seems to have directly influenced his own vampire novel The Strain (Which is highly recommended too).  Not only a damn good vampire and comic book movie but also proof that del Toro could handle action as well as scares.

Hellboy
Del Toro – a big comics fan – championed this adaptation of the Dark Horse Comic by Mike Mignola as a dream project long before the production was given the green light.  The titular character (Ron Perlman) is a demon summoned during WWII who’s now an investigator for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence (BPRD). In his latest case, hunting down a “hound of resurrection”, Hellboy begins to discover why he was bought to Earth in the first place.  This is a thrill ride of an adventure with a lot of heart that does a good job of capturing the joy of the comic.  With its mix of superhero fare, Indiana Jones style globetrotting (complete with Nazis) and sights straight out of HP Lovecraft, this is bit of a muddle, but the strength of Perlman’s lead is more than enough to keep you interested.  While comic book movies are dominated by DC and Marvel superheroes, here’s a rare case of a indie hero done right.  Also, the DVD has a whole load of classic weird cartoons on it.

Pan’s Labyrinth (Main Picture) 
By far del Toro’s biggest success in terms of international acclaim and awards, this film builds on some of the same themes and ideas of The Devil’s Backbone, but takes them in a direction more in the line of dark fantasy rather than horror.  Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, with a new stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez).  She soon has a vision of a Faun (Doug Jones) who tells her that she may be a fairy princess, but must pass three tests to prove it.  The story here is one of escapism, as Ofelia enters these fantasy realms to escape the horror going on around her; but as things turn worse and worse, the darkness is reflected in the fantasy too. There is much ambiguity throughout the film as to whether or not the fantasy is real, but there is one subtle but major hint towards the end which gives observant viewers a clue. Powerful, with astonishing creature designs, and a shocking war story to boot, this is del Toro’s masterpiece.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The follow-up to Hellboy concerns the quest to stop a prince of the fair-folk (Luke Goss) from awakening an ancient army of mechanical monsters to devastate the human world.  It was good to get back into this world again, and there are some stand out ideas and creations in here.  However there’s something of a sense of over-indulgence at work too.  As dazzling as all the visuals are, the plot they’re part of is more than a bit overstuffed, and suffers from some major holes.  The film is still a lot of fun, with a dazzling final battle that’s almost a full Ray Harryhausen homage and the characters, such as fish person Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), are ones you do want to spend more time with.  It’s still not quite the equal of the first Hellboy film, but still well worth a watch.

After the release of Pacific Rim, it’s unclear where exactly del Toro will be going from here, as he has a lot of projects lined up.  These include a large-scale ghost story Crimson Peak, a TV version of The Strain, a potential DC comics piece, Dark Justice, and there’s still the long rumoured H.P. Lovecraft adaptation At the Mountains Of Madness.  Whatever he does next, he is a director with a clear vision and unmistakeable style.  He’s certainly a talent to watch out for and his entire back catalogue can’t be recommended enough.

Pacific Rim is in cinemas from 12th July 2013

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