Guillermo del Toro is one of those directors whose films are very easy to identify. He is a Mexican born filmmaker whose upbringing and experiences during his career have both allowed and inspired him to make films with a unique and creative style. In specific, comparing del Toro’s films to ones directed by more traditional directors one will see incredible focus on details and story. Del Toro’s films simply echo the incredible amount of care and attention that he puts into them. This devotion to his films and his techniques has made him one of the most consistent film makers in the business today. I may be biased because del Toro is one of my all-time favorite directors, but the man has never made a bad film.
Del Toro’s feature film debut was 1993’s Chronos, a slow-burning horror/vampire flick that showed off all of del Toro’s trademarks. Although that film was not a commercial success, it was well received by critics, winning nine Mexican Academy Awards. That success caught the eye of Hollywood and he signed on with a major production company to make his next film, Mimic, released in 1997. Although that film also received good reviews, del Toro was frustrated and furious with the constraints put on him by the production company. Because of this, he went on to form his own film company. Free to make his next film as he saw fit, he directed The Devil’s Backbone in 2001. This film fared well with critics, but didn’t make much money.
Next in an effort to make a film that would be profitable, del Toro signed on to direct Blade II in 2002. Del Toro put his own spin on the comic book-based sequel and the result was a film that was moderately well received but more importantly made some money. Blade II was the turning point for del Toro. His next films, Hellboy (2004) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) were both very well received and proved del Toro could make profitable movies that would appeal to audiences and critics despite relatively low budgets. Pan’s Labyrinth especially caught the eye of critics, as it won 3 Oscars. Next, del Toro got a bigger budget to make the sequel Hellboy II: The Golden Army. This film was well received and managed to make money with the help of a strong foreign box office. However, despite being a critically acclaimed director, Del Toro has yet to have a box office home run. His next attempt at one opens this week, with Pacific Rim.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a del Toro film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of del Toro’s trademarks as director, in no particular order.
Detailed Creature Costumes and Makeup
Del Toro’s films always feature at least one weird, creepy, or scary creature/character that plays a major part in the plot. Del Toro’s focus on detail means that the creature will look incredibly realistic thanks to excellent makeup and costume work, rather than CGI or other digital effects. Often, this makeup would take hours to apply to the actors, so it is a very time-intensive process. Del Toro studied makeup techniques under Hollywood legend Dick Smith (The Exorcist (1973)), and even started his own company that did makeup in movies and TV before he himself started making films.
Catholicism and Related Religious Imagery
Del Toro was raised by his catholic grandmother, and as a result, Catholicism shows up frequently in his films. First, religion is usually mentioned in all of his films, with at least one character being catholic. Although his films may not feature an outright religious story, they do have religious themes, motifs, or archetypes. Del Toro’s stories also usually revolve around some sort of religious article or artifact, and that artifact plays a major role in the story. Last, although del Toro’s films can be dark, angels or angel-like beings often play a role. For example, the Angel of Death in Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Ron Perlman & Doug Jones
Del Toro frequently collaborates with Ron Perlman and Doug Jones. Perlman is featured in Chronos, Blade II, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Pacific Rim. Perlman starred in both Hellboy movies as the titular character and played a major supporting role in Chronos and Blade II. Doug Jones also works with del Toro frequently, and is featured in Mimic, Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Jones has a supporting role in all these films except Mimic, where he has a minor role.
Del Toro’s films often exude a yellowish amber-colored hue. Del Toro uses this color as a lightning technique to enhance the tone of his films. This technique also plays off of his fascination with clockwork and machinery as the amber color could be influenced by the copper or brass of metal parts.
Intricate Clockwork or Insect Imagery
Del Toro’s films frequently feature complicated clockwork-like machinery. There are always a lot of gears, pulleys and levers for characters to interact with. Some of these machine elements are featured in artifacts, like the mysterious device in Cronos (picture above). Other times they are part of the characters themselves, like Karl Ruprecht Kroenen, the mechanical Nazi hit man in Hellboy. Similarly, insects or insect-like creatures can play a major role in Del Toro’s films. The depiction of insects is usually similar to that of the machinery, where the focus is on the details of small moving parts. In Pan’s Labyrinth the main character finds an insect which transforms into a fairy, and in Cronos the device features an insect inside that allows it to function.
Previously: Directors’ Trademarks: Gore Verbinski