Last week Guillermo del Toro’s latest film The Shape of Water opened in theaters across the country to excellent reviews. It is the latest installment in del Toro’s long history of re-examining what it means to be a monster, even in a world where what we consider paranormal forces and circumstances are commonplace and all around us. Birth. Movies. Death has an article up that examines del Toro’s fascination with and love of monsters throughout his film career, and his propensity for treating them as heroes.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army aligns Hellboy with Frankenstein’s creature, a misunderstood hero regarded as a “freak” even by the people he protects. Liz’s recognition of Hellboy as a man and her love for Hellboy quite literally saves his life. And Mimic is the redemptive version of Frankenstein: entomologist Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) plays god, creating a new kind of creature to save humanity without considering the consequences. It’s not until she’s willing to risk her own life to save a little boy from these giant insects that humankind is redeemed.
In the director’s cut of Mimic, the film opens with the gruesome death of a priest backgrounded by a giant neon cross that reads, “Jesus Saves.” But it’s Susan who becomes a Christ figure: to distract a blood-loving man-size insect in order to save the life of a little boy, she gives herself stigmata with a rosary. Monsters are often saviors in del Toro’s universe as well. In Blade II, Blade saves the human race from vampires trying to create an ascendant race: the Reapers. Blade is crucified, spikes driven through his legs and hands. He then indulges his darkest impulse — his thirst — and drinking blood gives him the strength to be reborn, to fight more vampires, and to save the world. Hellboy opens on an image of Christ on the cross at the scene of Hellboy’s birth. Hellboy carries his adoptive father Professor Broom’s rosary, and at the film’s climax, his handler Agent Myers uses the rosary to remind him who he is: even though he’s destined to usher in the apocalypse, Hellboy can resist his fate, and he chooses to do the right thing by not ending the world.
In Guillermo del Toro’s universe, the real monsters are almost exclusively human: the fascists of Pan’s Labyrinth, Thomas’s and Lucille’s abusive parents in Crimson Peak, Hellboy’s Nazis, Blade II’s Nazi-esque vampires. They are villains obsessed with perfection, order. Cruelty and control and materialism define them. But even the most villainous monsters in del Toro’s films can be sympathetic. We may not love them, but we understand them — even Pan Labyrinth’s sadistic, legacy-obsessed captain Vidal or The Devil’s Backbone’s greed-driven Jacinto, once “the loneliest boy in the orphanage.”
Crimson Peak’s Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is like Jane Eyre’s Bertha Rochester, given her own narrative beyond “the madwoman in the attic.” In voiceover Lucille explains: “Love makes monsters of us all.” But even Lucille isn’t the real monster here — it’s Thomas’s and Lucille’s parents who kept them locked in the attic and beat them. In character backstories written for Lucille and Thomas Sharpe, del Toro describes their mother as an “object of abuse,” and their father as “a shadow, a noise, an omen.” Perhaps the only truly evil entity in del Toro’s body of work is the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, a child-consuming creature who represents the church and, according to del Toro, “all institutional evil feeding on the helpless.”
We here at Moonfire are big fans of del Toro’s work, and wish him a long career with many more successes ahead of him. His films never fail to captivate, and his vision is unique, whether he is shooting a Hollywood action movie or a smaller, more personal artistic film.