The Master of Highbrow Horror

How the childlike fervor of Guillermo del Toro’s imagination turns genre films into art

Tim McDonagh

The director Guillermo del Toro won’t have a feature film out in 2016, but his brand—and his spirit—seem to be everywhere. His sumptuously gruesome vampire/plague TV series, The Strain, is currently in its third season. In recent months, an exhibition called “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters” opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a boxed set of his Spanish-language horror films, Cronos (1993), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), has been issued by the Criterion Collection, just in time for the holidays (Halloween and Day of the Dead, that is). In December, Netflix will stream the original animated series Trollhunters, produced by del Toro and based on a 2015 young-adult novel written by him and Daniel Kraus. Next year, the museum show will travel to Minneapolis and Toronto. This isn’t exactly world domination of the sort that the villains and monsters in The Strain and his 2004 film, Hellboy, crave, but for a filmmaker who has directed only nine movies in 23 years, the reach of his name as a guarantee of a certain kind of genre entertainment is pretty impressive. Just as Alfred Hitchcock—about whom he wrote a short book as a young man—was the master of suspense, del Toro is as close as we’ve got right now to a master of horror.

Hitchcock and del Toro aren’t similar artists at all, really, except in their common dedication to purely visual, and visceral, storytelling. (And, okay, their common girth: They are rotund men.) I think it’s fair to say that both filmmakers transformed their chosen genres by bringing to them a more personal intensity than the weary old forms had been accustomed to. All horror traffics in fear, but the fear in del Toro’s work isn’t simply the something’s-out-to-get-you feeling of conventional scare pictures. It’s fear mixed with fascination, a childlike wonder at the strange shapes reality can take. In the poem “Children Selecting Books in a Library,” Randall Jarrell writes, “Their tales are full of sorcerers and ogres / Because their lives are: the capricious infinite.” That’s where the best moments of del Toro’s films always seem to be taking place—in the capricious infinite as it is apprehended, warily, in the mind’s eye of a child.

“At Home With Monsters” is, in a way, a look inside del Toro’s own peculiarly configured consciousness. Most of the exhibit consists of the actual contents of a house—called Bleak House—that the director keeps in a suburb of Los Angeles. It’s essentially a boy’s macabre playhouse, stuffed with horror memorabilia, including life-size effigies of famous creatures like Frankenstein’s monster and famous writers like Poe and Lovecraft (which are only slightly less alarming). In his foreword to the exhibition catalog, del Toro writes: “Monsters are, to this day, true family to me. They are not effigies collected for profit or due to a completist mania. In Bleak House, I have built a temple to them, and within [it] I have built devotional shrines.” He was raised Catholic, in Mexico. Horror’s his religion now.

Nutty as that sounds, a measure of quasi-religious devotion isn’t the worst quality for a filmmaker to have. (Besides, nothing in movie history suggests that a goofball can’t also be an artist.) Right from his first movie, Cronos, del Toro’s weird faith seemed to set his work apart. You could feel something buzzing in there, like the blood-hungry insect living inside the beautiful little machine that, in the movie, turns people into vampires. There’s an obsessiveness in the design of that small contraption, in its glittering golden surface and its mysterious and lovingly photographed clockwork mechanism: It’s a Fabergé egg with a stinger inside, a horror so lovely that it’s impossible to resist. Only a mad monk like del Toro could dream up an object like that, and make a film that works just like it.

Del Toro’s approach in Cronos, romantic and funkily lyrical, was clearly something different in the genre, which in the early 1990s was still dominated by teen-centric slasher pictures of the Halloween/Friday the 13th/A Nightmare on Elm Street variety (though their popularity had begun to fade). And yet Cronos isn’t entirely an art-house film, either. It’s too outrageous, too gleefully bloody. For del Toro, as for many film artists (Hitchcock, De Palma, and Peckinpah come to mind), the higher and lower impulses coexist peacefully in his creative sensibility. There are moments of breath-catching beauty even in Mimic (1997), a movie about giant cockroaches, and in the comic-book extravaganza Hellboy; and moments of hide-your-eyes gruesomeness even in the graceful fables Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.

Although the films in the Criterion box, called Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro, seem more serious than a monster-movie blowout like Pacific Rim (2013), none of his pictures are austere, exactly. Everything he does has the profuse, spilling-over quality of a hyperactive kid’s imagination. His most recent film, Crimson Peak (2015), is a Victorian ghost story, which suggests a certain gentility, but there’s nothing genteel about del Toro’s revenants, nothing wispy or discreet. They crawl, they grimace terribly, they trail strings of ectoplasm like the tatters of a shroud. The atmosphere is hushed, the settings are elegant, and the camera movements are silky-smooth, but del Toro’s creatures never respect niceties of tone. They’ll crash any party and don’t mind making a mess.

Before del Toro came along, that sort of playfulness, that dark exuberance, had been missing from horror for too long (with sporadic exceptions like Kathryn Bigelow’s hallucinatory vampire road movie of 1987, Near Dark). Because fear is such an easy emotion to evoke in a movie audience, horror can be the most cynical of genres. Any filmmaker with a bit of technique can get a nice satisfying reaction out of us—a shudder, a scream, or a heartfelt “Ewwww!”—without much effort, and after a while (if not sooner) a certain contempt for the audience can set in. The fright becomes mechanical, just an exercise in stimulus and response; the horrors are engineered rather than imagined.

That’s never the case in a del Toro movie. The ghastly sights he puts on the screen feel as if they’ve sprung from his dreams. (What nightmares a sleepover at Bleak House might induce … ) His images are irrationally, often surreally, awful. The vampires in The Strain, for instance, do their killing not by delicately sinking fangs into a victim’s neck, but by extruding a disturbingly long, thick, purplish tongue, forked at the end like a snake’s. The heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth, who is played by an 11-year-old, at one point finds herself in the lair of a thin, pale, hairless creature that has no eyes in his face but sometimes has eyes in the palms of his long-fingered hands. It’s a tough image to shake.

And that’s just as it should be, in horror. At its infrequent best, the genre is more about imagery than narrative, closer to poetry than to fiction. What we remember from horror movies are moments of keen, concentrated fear; flashes of appalling beauty; and of course the monsters, whose function is to incarnate forces that cannot be understood. Del Toro takes great care with his monsters, that “true family” of his. (He once studied with the great special-effects makeup artist Dick Smith, of Exorcist fame.) They come in different shapes and sizes, from the nasty bug in Cronos to the massive Kaiju of Pacific Rim, which rise from the ocean and can level cities. He favors creatures that sport nonhuman extensions of the body—tendrils, tentacles, tails, all kinds of appendages that reach and probe and disturb the air. There are things with horns and things with wings. He looks at these fantastic beings as the children in Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth look at them: with some fear, and more curiosity.

His sensibility isn’t, perhaps, to everyone’s taste, but it is, I think, an artist’s sensibility, and it’s unmistakably his. Del Toro is one of those fortunate moviemakers, like Hitchcock, who happened on a popular genre that suits his deepest, oldest preoccupations—all the childish things he never cared to put aside. Hitchcock’s obsessions are a shade more grown-up, but just a shade—adolescent anxieties in which sex and guilt and the possibility of punishment are all jumbled up together and find their clearest expression in the taut, nervous form of the thriller. Horror is for those whose sense of dread is more primitive, or less mundane. It’s for people who never outgrew their belief that the world is infinitely mysterious, and that its unknowability is the source of both terror and pleasure. It’s for people like Guillermo del Toro.

Not that there are many who can match the boyish fervor of his imagination. That’s probably just as well; a world full of del Toros would be exhausting, maybe deranging. But it’s good to have one of him, at least, to remind other artists, and audiences, that horror movies can be more than just scream machines, that they can sometimes transform our fears and fantasies into beautiful monsters. Since he came on the scene, the overall quality of the genre has ticked up, slightly but measurably, and more filmmakers seem to be telling horror stories about children. He has acted as a producer on some of those movies, such as J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage (2007), Troy Nixey’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), and Andrés Muschietti’s Mama (2013).

You can also feel his inspiration, if not his direct influence, in quite a few others. The subdued palette and muted tone of Tomas Alfredson’s tween vampire tale, Let the Right One In (2008), for example, aren’t del Toro–ish at all, but in some peculiar way the kids’ attitude toward the world’s terrors is. Like the responses of the young protagonists in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, their reactions to dire experiences mix dread, detachment, and a strange sort of hopefulness. And in Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014), a 6-year-old Australian boy who passionately believes in monsters learns that some demons—the domestic kind that beset his widowed mother—can’t really be defeated. They can only be contained, locked away in a corner of the cellar; if you’re careful, you can live with your family monster. That’s an idea the custodian of Bleak House would approve of.

And in Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015)—subtitled A New-England Folktale—the question of belief in monsters, the basic del Toro theme, takes on a different sort of urgency, because the children here belong to a family of devout 17th‑century Puritans settled on a sere, ungiving patch of land. Their brand of religion, which lacks devotional imagery, and their spare and dutiful way of life leave them oddly defenseless when bad things start to happen and the world (or God) seems to turn against them. In the absence of art and play, their belief in evil becomes something unendurable, a pure torment. Although The Witch has a creature in it as sinister-looking as anything del Toro has dreamed up—a goat called Black Phillip, which may be the devil itself—the spirit of this great horror movie is so unlike his as to seem almost a backhanded vindication of his flamboyant aesthetic. If only this unfortunate family had pictures to look at, effigies, shrines to what they fear, they might be able to survive the evil around them. That’s how frightened kids survive their childhoods, and how a master of horror can help us all, at any age, get through our scary days.