10. Pacific Rim (2013)
You could do a very interesting analysis of the films of Guillermo del Toro if you were to discuss them in the order in which they were released as his is not a career that has shown gradual improvement as it has progressed. The man is a truly brilliant film maker but the quality of his movies has yo-yoed from the utterly sublime to the deeply mediocre as he has tried to fit the round peg of his sometimes macabre but always fantastical sensibilities into the often square Hollywood hole.
Pacific Rim, one of del Toro’s most recent films, is actually by my mind his worst. There is very little evidence of his delightful dark vision here as he works to satisfy the expectations of a mainstream audience with this story of gung-ho heroism and giant robots fighting massive sea monsters. There is the tiniest guillermoment fifty minutes in as a small girl, one red shoe missing, stands beneath a mythical horned leviathan but it passes pretty quickly and we’re back to bland and noisy for the rest of the running time.
9. Mimic (1997)
Guillermo’s second film was his first attempt to make something for American cinema four years on from his impressive Mexican debut. Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam are scientists who created a super insect to wipe out a plague of diseased child killing cockroaches only for the bug to evolve into something not so super. It is rife with monster movie cliches and it has a cheesy and predictable ending but there are moments of brilliance such as when the kid alerts audience to the presence of the murderous seven foot beetle by starting to eerily click his spoons in time to the sounds it makes.
8. Blade 2 (2002)
The director briefly returned to make films in Mexico following Mimic but was back in the States just a year later with Blade 2. Made before his better known comic book movie Hellboy and inherited from someone else Blade 2 is actually the closest Guillermo del Toro has come to making a standard Hollywood movie. In his hands this instalment in the story of Wesley Snipes vampire killer made no concessions to a wider audience being del Toro’s only English language film to earn an 18 certificate. This is evidence of the director really going for it with the violence and while it is often over the top it is also funny, thrilling and in places genuinely scary.
7. Hellboy (2004)
With Hellboy, a half demon prophesied to destroy a world he has grown fond of, del Toro found a comic book character slightly more suited to his medieval spiritualist fantasy sensibilities. At the time it looked as though the director had properly settled into his American niche but fortunately this wasn’t the case. Hellboy, with its outlandish plot, never feels like anything more than a B-Movie but it’s fun and it employs some of the directors usual imaginative design and dark humour to great effect.
6. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Following on from the masterpiece that is Pan’s Labyrinth (more on that later) Hellboy: The Golden Army was initially a big disappointment but actually, even though it is a step backwards for the director it is a big step forward for Hellboy and for comic book films in general. It never gets past its hokey set up but the imagery and creature design is spectacular. Bringing some of Pan’s fairytale plotting to the story as the hero fights a range of mystical bad guys of every size and substance, this is possibly the most surprising and awe inspiring superhero film in a decade packed with superhero films.
5. Cronos (1993)
Guillermo del Toro’s first film remains one of his best. With no thoughts of appealing to an international audience but paying reverence to classic horror cinema del Toro launched his career in a way that instantly made the US studios pay attention. Here was a new take on the immortal blood sucker genre that marked the twenty something South American as someone to watch. Cronos is dated by modern standards, being perhaps a little melodramatic for contemporary tastes, but it remains an intelligent, well crafted and occasionally shocking supernatural thriller.
4. Crimson Peak (2015)
Crimson Peak Shows off del Toro’s eye for set design possibly better than any of his films. Swapping the Mexican/Aztec aesthetic employed in some of his other movies for straight Victorian gothic we get a film where everything looks incredible. Narratively Crimson Peak is a ghost film where the ghosts are almost incidental as there would be a compelling film here even if all the supernatural elements were removed. Mia Wasikowska is the young American heiress who falls for down on his luck English gentleman Tom Hiddleston moving in to the titular creepy location with him and his equally creepy sister Jessica Chastain. (This is also del Toro’s starriest film.) All is not as it seems for the young woman but she has the advantage of being able to see dead people and they are looking out for her.
Both the house and the ghosts haunting it are spectacular and while other films choose not to let the frame properly display their phantoms, either for effect or to disguise the special effects, Crimson Peak shows them in all their grizzly glory.
3. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
The Devil’s Backbone saw del Toro returning home and making another film in Mexico after Mimic, apparently having not enjoyed the lack of freedom you get as an untried foreign director in the Hollywood system.
The film is a beautiful little ghost story but as is typical there is more to the story than that. As well as the spook the young hero at the centre of the film has to contend with being dumped in an orphanage only a few miles from the encroaching Spanish Civil War. The movie has great imagery and poetry and actually if you’ve never seen a Guillermo del Toro picture before, this is where I suggest you start. This is the director in his comfort zone and for just the one film at least, there is nothing wrong with that.
See also J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage. That film is executive produced and presented by del Toro and very heavily influenced by him. It is the best Guillermo del Toro film Guillermo del Toro never made.
2. Pans Labyrinth (2006)
Fortunately for the world Guillermo del Toro is not a director who is comfortable in his comfort zone and is not comfortable with cinema goers being comfortable in their seats. As a result after Hellboy made him a firm success in the eyes of a wider audience he turned around and made what was probably his riskiest film. Pan’s Labyrinth takes the director’s love of dark fairytales implicit in Hellboy (and later to be explicit in Hellboy 2) and forced it into the brutal Spanish Civil War setting of The Devil’s Backbone where it didn’t easily fit. As it turned out the result is a beautiful, disturbing, shocking, enchanting audacious masterpiece. In 150 years of cinema there is nothing else like it.
Made in the Spanish language but with a fair amount of American money Pan’s Labyrinth tells the tale of a young girl escaping the ravages of what is actually post civil war Spain by descending into a fantastical underground world of fauns and fairies. Fantasy and reality have never been put together quite like this and the incredible mix of stunning visuals, imagined horrors, real life horrors, incredible performances and beautiful but heartbreaking storytelling is quite brilliant.
1. The Shape of Water (2017)
Which brings us to del Toro’s latest and arguably best film. Certainly it is the first time his supernatural themes have best fitted into a Hollywood movie. That isn’t to say there is anything conventional about this tale of a mute woman who develops a strong emotional connection with a magical humanoid sea creature in Cold War Baltimore. The film could be seen as a lyrical study of isolation and loneliness. Some may see it as a timely parable about prejudice and racialism and what it means to connect with those we’d never imagine we’d find companionship with. It might just be a really weird remake of Splash but however you view it, it is absolutely sublime. I’d resigned myself to the fact that Guillermo del Toro would never make another masterpiece to match Pan’s Labyrinth but you know what they say, if you stop looking for something…
As is normal with del Toro there are moments of harshness here, including what is probably the most casually violent and squirm inducing thing I have ever seen a person do to another person on screen. Essentially though this is a powerful inter species love story and it is genuinely moving.
Sally Hawkins is superb in the lead role. I have long been impressed by everything this woman does but her performance here has such quiet confidence and grace (which is a contrast to her part in Happy Go Lucky). There is something of the art of the great silent film stars in the way she interacts with others and at no point do you feel that this is someone with a disability. Credit should also go to Doug Jones for his portrayal of the fish man. He doesn’t speak either yet the communication between the two of them (and with us) is never confused. Jones’ face is not one you’ll know but he has appeared under masks and latex in dozens of films and TV shows, including seven with this director. He currently can’t be seen as Saru in Star Trek Discovery. He is to rubber characters as Andy Serkis is to mocapped ones.
Elsewhere the cast, including Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg on the side of good and Michael Shannon as the bad guy, are all strong but this is del Toro’s film and he shows that when he can do his own thing he truly is a master at what he does.
Whichever of his slated projects comes up next, be it Pinocchio, Jekyll & Hyde, Fantastic Voyage or Roald Dahl’s The Witches, I can’t wait to see it but it’s the one after that, the that no one sees coming, the one that comes entirely from his own imagination that I’m really excited about.