I was going to do a simple (simple, he says, the last one was over 3000 words and took about 7 hours to research, write and find pictures for) Hall of Fame post for Guillermo Del Toro, but it occurred to me that I had seen and owned all but one of his feature films, and that if I got my hands on Mimic and watched it I could do something even more in depth.
So here it is - in three exhaustive parts - The Complete Guillermo Del Toro, I’ve provided a little biographical detail (there’s really not much available) and whatever background I think is necessary, but the main focus of this feature is the reviews. I’ve re-watched and written brand new detailed reviews for all seven of Del Toro’s feature films, and a preview of his eighth and ninth, the upcoming pair of Hobbit films. I’ve also tried to tie the films together more than in a conventional set of reviews, to give a sense of how Del Toro has progressed through his films.
Ladies and Gentlemen… Guillermo Del Toro
Birth Name: Guillermo Del Toro
Occupation: Writer / Director
Born: 9th October 1964 Guadalajara, Mexico
Family: Wife: Lorenza Daughters: Mariana, Marisa
Directorial Debut: Doña Lupe (Short, 1985)
Latest Film: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Current Project: The Hobbit (2012)
Raised in Guadalajara, Mexico by his devout Catholic Grandmother Guillermo Del Toro became interested in filmmaking in his early teens, but it was probably his later schooling in special effects and effects make up under Dick Smith, whose work spans 50 years and such films as The Exorcist and Scanners, that helped shape his later work, which dwells on the fantastic stories and monsters that enthralled and frightened the young Del Toro.
Del Toro’s first directorial credit came, aged 21, with the half hour horror short Doña Lupe, which has just seen its first ever commercial release thanks to a Cinema 16 DVD titled World Short Films, and features a commentary which Del Toro apparently begins by apologising for his own film. After this Del Toro plugged away, doing effects for other people’s films, and directing for Mexican television, notably a horror series called Hora Marcada, which also gave Alfonso Cuaron early experience. Then, finally, aged 29, Del Toro made his feature directorial debut with the revisionist vampire film Cronos.
The Cronos device was invented by an alchemist in the 16th century, it granted the user eternal life, but transformed him into a creature allergic to sunlight, with alabaster white skin, and a thirst for blood. In the 1990s antiques dealer Jesus (Federico Luppi) finds the device and accidentally activates it, beginning the process of his own transformation. But other forces want the Cronos device for their own ends, and they’ll go to any lengths to get it.
The vampire myth is as old as the hills, and has been a cinematic staple for close to 90 years. Every now and then some upstart comes along with what they allege is an original take on the myth, most prove to have just juggled a couple of aspects of it and then done largely the same old thing, but Guillermo Del Toro’s take on the vampire is genuinely, breathtakingly, original and utterly compelling. Del Toro does away with most of the established traits of vampirism, Jesus never develops fangs, he never becomes sensitive to garlic or crosses, instead Del Toro creates a vampirism that works more like a disease, altering Jesus beyond recognition; physical and mental. It’s a refreshing take, and early evidence that we are here in the hands of someone with complete mastery of the story and the world he is creating.
That world is also completely recognisable as that of Guillermo Del Toro; many of what would become the director’s trademarks first identify themselves here. The Cronos device itself is the most prominent; a golden thing that looks like a scarab, it works, like many malevolent things in Del Toro’s films, through a clockwork mechanism, and contains an insect of some sort, which feeds on the users blood. Both clockwork and insects are near constants in Del Toro’s work, and here he combines them to eerie effect. The Cronos device is a bizarre and utterly original creation, and the mechanical workings of the prop and the excellent, creepy sound effects combine to make this largely inanimate object decidedly chilling.
Another of Del Toro’s seeming obsessions that raises its head here is the use of children in prominent roles in horrific situations. Jesus’ young granddaughter is the first to discover his condition, and rather than fear him she accepts him for what he was; Grandad. There are all sorts of things that one could read into Cronos. You could see Aurora as Del Toro’s version of himself (he, after all, was raised by his grandmother), or you could take the entire film as Del Toro’s reaction to his Catholic upbringing, this is quite a persuasive idea; the leading character Jesus Gris comes very close to sharing a name with Jesus Christ, and during the film he dies and is resurrected, there is also the fact that blood is, in Cronos, a restorative, and this could be seen as analogous to the use of wine in Catholic mass.
At the end of the day though, interesting as those theories are, they are almost beside the point, because what really matters about Cronos, what really makes it interesting, is simply that it’s a brilliant horror film. Del Toro’s script is a smart and original thing, but he’s a director first, and the film’s imagery is often extraordinary. Besides the device and its use he finds some truly striking shots. Particularly strong is a scene in which Jesus follows a man with a bleeding nose to the bathroom. The way Del Toro makes the vivid blood stand out against the marble bathroom and has Luppi bend right to the floor to lick it up makes for a memorable series of compositions, as does the sequence in which, in front of Aurora, Jesus begins to peel off his grey rotting skin to reveal the vampire beneath it.
The use of special effects, and even blood, is sparing, but strong, and always beautifully designed. The only times that the effects look a touch cheap are when the Cronos device is puncturing Jesus’ skin, but otherwise everything from the blood, which looks impressively real, to the inner workings of the device holds up brilliantly to even quite close scrutiny. Del Toro tells much of this story with images (indeed Aurora seldom speaks) but he never leans too heavily on his effects, never allows them to overtake his story and characters.
The only real problem with the film is that Del Toro’s mastery of the English language is clearly not complete, and that hurts the English language scenes and performance of Ron Perlman, who is more overblown than he need be as Angel De La Guardia, in what is otherwise a rather subtle, even soulful, film. Thankfully Federico Luppi’s performance is spot on, he makes Jesus grandfatherly and avuncular in the beginning, so that as he begins to change we both see the metamorphosis and feel the loss that he and his family are suffering.
Cronos is a masterful debut for Guillermo Del Toro, one that sets out his stall as a truly gifted, and truly different, filmmaker.
Cronos was a critical success, and gained a cult following. It also won awards at several festivals, and at Mexico’s Ariel awards. In 1993 Del Toro reportedly had a meeting with Universal, regarding the idea of remaking Cronos in English, to which he responded with typical wit "Who wants to see Jack Lemmon lick blood off a bathroom floor?".
A new talent with a successful independent debut behind him, this being the mid 90’s it was pretty obvious where Del Toro would go next, and so he went to America, to make his next film for Bob and Harvey Weinstein at mega-indie Miramax. He was offered Hellraiser: Bloodline (on which eventual director Kevin Yagher was so frequently overruled that he took an Alan Smithee credit), but turned it down and opted instead for…
I’ll let Del Toro himself introduce this review: “I remember the worst experience of my life, even above the kidnapping of my father, was shooting Mimic. Because what was happening to me and the movie was far more illogical than kidnapping, which is brutal, but at least there are rules. Now when I look at Mimic, what I see is the pain of a deeply flawed creature that could have been so beautiful.”
Mimic is, as he has recognised and stated, Guillermo Del Toro’s worst film by some distance. It’s the only one that doesn’t indelibly bear his stamp on every frame, the only one that, at the most basic level, simply doesn’t work. Yet, if you wade through the tedious mire that much of this movie is, there are moments; a shot here, an idea there, that hint at what might have been had Bob and Harvey Weinstein simply let Del Toro’s unstoppable imagination run riot. The creatures are well designed and when they appear in shadow they have a frightening presence, sadly on full reveal the monsters work less well, particularly when they aren’t rendered physically.
What really kills Mimic is the fact that the creatures don’t really have a personality, or even much of a purpose. Del Toro’s monsters are often the most intriguing characters in his stories, always layered, always given complex morals and motivations. He loves monsters, is fascinated by them, and it usually shows. Mimic, in its pursuit of convention, does away with that, meaning that the monsters are just that; monsters, and once you know what they are and what they do they become pretty boring.
The people are no more interesting than the creatures, thanks to a bland story and a screenplay that mistakes ciphers for characters. The performances are also dreadful, and not even uniformly so. There are the personality voids that are supposed to be our heroes, played with as little charisma and effort as they can muster by Mira Sorvino and Jeremy Northam. There’s the obnoxious support provided by Josh Brolin (in that difficult period after The Goonies and before No Country for Old Men) and the usually reliable Charles S Dutton. We’re also graced with the hamtastic, English mangling, Giancarlo Giannini and some truly dreadful child performances, a surprise from Del Toro, usually a sensitive director of kids.
However, Mimic, for all its tedium, is beautifully shot and designed. A scene in a church, which sees monsters closing in on a young boy, is stunning, and Del Toro’s insect obsession continues to serve him well. More proof of the tinkering done on this film arrives in the rumour that one stand out shot (hospital beds in endless rows draped in white sheets) was directed by producer Ole Bornedal (who was remaking his Nightwatch for Bob and Harv at the time), and there is an occasional decent set piece; the monsters attacking a subway car in which the characters are trapped being a particular highlight.
It’s easy to see why Del Toro has little love for Mimic, I’d love to see him be allowed to recut or remake the film on his own terms, because the idea of a cure that ends up hunting and killing us sounds like an idea tailor made for him, thankfully the experience of making Mimic led to Del Toro’s willingness to compromise his dark visions slipping, which was all to the good.
Mimic was a financial disappointment on its theatrical release, amassing only a few hundred thousand dollars more than the $25 million it had cost Miramax, however its video and DVD incarnations boosted that significantly enough to make sure that Del Toro wouldn’t be written off by Hollywood, and that Mimic itself would spawn two straight to video sequels.
Del Toro, disillusioned with Hollywood, went back to his favoured themes, and to the Spanish language, for his next project, which is where we’ll pick up in Part 2.