Part 2: One for me, two for them.
We left part 1 of this retrospective with the poor critical and commercial reception of Del Toro’s American debut, the much interfered with Mimic. We pick up with the portly auteur returning to his native language to make a passion project…
The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
During the Spanish civil war Carlos (Tielve) arrives at an orphanage for boys whose parents have been killed or are fighting in the conflict. He soon discovers that the other children believe the orphanage is haunted, and that they may be right.
As the elder sibling to Pan’s Labyrinth it’s hard to assess The Devil’s Backbone on its own terms. Taken on its own terms there is a great deal to admire in Guillermo Del Toro’s third film, but looking at it now, through the prism of his similarly themed later masterpiece, much also clunks. It’s also unhelpful to The Devil’s Backbone’s cause that since it was released several other films have drawn inspiration from both its look and its story (most notably Juan Antonio Bayona’s overlauded, Del Toro produced, The Orphanage), making it seem less individual than it in fact is.
The main problem is with the pacing. Del Toro is telling two stories here; that of how the war outside the orphanage affects the people in it - teachers Luppi and Paredes and caretaker Noriega, as well as the kids - as much as it does the world outside and a ghost story about a child who officially went missing from the orphanage the same night a bomb fell in the grounds, but failed to explode. The problem is that they don’t balance brilliantly, and for the fifty minutes or so the war story is treading water while the ghost story never really becomes all that interesting, each of its beats staying firmly in the realm of cliché.
The movie does come to life in its second half, hints about one key character start to pay off and the film becomes a real pressure cooker, but one that manages to combine its chills with plenty of emotion, courtesy mainly of Federico Luppi’s beautifully layered turn as Dr Casares. While the ghost story never really shocks the civil war motivated second half certainly does, putting your heart in your mouth several times.
The performances are largely excellent, with the children something of a mixed bag, but the adults acquitting themselves extremely well. Luppi stands out, the sadness behind his eyes deeply moving, but he’s well matched by Paredes and by Eduardo Noriega’s progressively more loathsome and corrupt caretaker.
The one thing you absolutely can’t fault The Devil’s Backbone on is its look. This isn’t an expensive film, but Del Toro gets massive value for money from his budget, with brilliant (if sparing) CGI and awesome sets and props. The gothic look of the orphanage, particularly the cellar which is the setting for much of the second half, is both handsome and creepy; its cathedral like columns and arches lending a haunting air. This is carried through to the dormitories and to the exteriors, giving the film a real graphic identity. Many of Del Toro’s interest also crop up, there may be no clockwork, but Paredes character’s false leg receives much screentime and several loving close ups, while a sequence featuring foetuses in jars showcases imagery that recurs time and again in Del Toro’s films. His use of the ghost character, while seldom unexpected, is beautiful to behold, particularly in the way that CGI is used to make it always appear as if he’s underwater (the floating blood is a lovely touch).
The Devil’s Backbone is brilliant art 24 times per second. It’s not always quite so brilliant as entertainment, but its haunting ending will stick in the mind, and that’s something that you can’t say as often as you ought to be able to.
The Devil’s Backbone was a critical hit, and re-established Del Toro’s reputation after the poor reception of Mimic. An inexpensive film, it also made enough money that it could be considered a resounding commercial success. Then Hollywood again came calling. Del Toro’s next project wouldn’t be one that, like Devil’s Backbone, he had carefully nursed for 16 years, but it would give him his largest budget yet (a still rather modest $54 million) and let him work in a different style, and on a larger scale.
Blade II (2002)
The Blade franchise is a perfect encapsulation of what a Director brings to a studio film. The first film, directed by Stephen Norrington, is largely anonymous hackwork, enlivened by one stunningly executed set piece. The third, directed by franchise screenwriter David S Goyer, is an utter mess, directed by someone with no visual sense and a concept of editing that extends no further than throwing the rushes in a blender. Then there’s Blade II.
Under Del Toro's steady hand Blade II never forgets what it is; an essentially rather silly sequel to a not terribly good comic book movie. Del Toro sets his ambitions rather lower than he had for Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, understanding that here he’s not trying to make art, but to craft a rollercoaster ride, and that simple aim he achieves with great aplomb and seeming ease. That he’s not trying to make art doesn’t mean that Del Toro doesn’t, almost inadvertently, end up injecting some of his artistry into Blade II, but the balance is very much tipped in favour of sensation.
The problem with the original Blade movie was that it never came close to topping its amazing opening sequence set in a club with vampires dancing under showers of blood. Blade II starts out in similarly energetic fashion, with an action sequence just four minutes in, but crucially Del Toro manages not to upstage himself early, delivering a series of strong and varied action sequences, courtesy of co-ordinators Donnie Yen and Jeff Ward, at regular and well paced intervals, while never losing sight of the (admittedly slightly anorexic) story. That story involves Blade (Snipes) teaming up with a pack of vampires trained to hunt him in order to go after a new kind of super vampire led by Luke Goss, formerly of Bros, as Jared Nomack.
The Reapers are one of the great triumphs of Blade II. Del Toro excels at monsters, always managing to inject personality, and in this case no small measure of pathos, into his bad guys, making the antagonists in his films at least as interesting as the protagonists (in this case, thanks to Snipes’ rather uncharismatic performance, more so) Goss is clearly no DeNiro, but he makes for a serviceable villain, mastering the martial arts and giving both sides of Nomack’s character – the animalistic killer and the abandoned outsider – believability and weight.
What doesn’t always work quite so well is the CGI. A bullet time style effect, deployed several times in the film, works only about fifty percent of the time, and the computer modelled characters that perform some of the impossible stunts are too putty like (Del Toro knows this only too well, ranting “I fucking hate this shot” on his commentary). Outside of a few CGI issues though the film’s design is awesome. The Reapers are nightmarish creatures that represent an entirely logical next evolutionary step along from vampires (their gaping maws were memorably and graphically compared to a vagina by Harry Knowles, in one of his very worst pieces of writing). Del Toro’s obsessions pop up again, with personal touches in every piece of set and prop design. Most notable is a huge array of foetuses seen in jars at the end of the film, explicitly recalling The Devil’s Backbone.
Blade II isn’t a profound film, and it’s probably not, at most levels, even an especially good one. David S Goyer’s screenplay, for example, is largely as schematic and bland as ever, it overflows with idiotic lines and most of the relationships are very poorly drawn. The acting isn’t great, whether you’re talking about Snipes and Kristofferson’s apparent growling competition, Leonor Varela’s bland love interest, or Thomas Kretchmann’s hammery. What Blade II is, though, is ridiculous amounts of fun. It’s a gorgeous rollercoaster ride that you can’t help but get caught up in, despite yourself. You end up forgiving all of its shortcomings because, from its first chilling moments to its overblown last scene it’s a tremendous entertainment.
Blade II may not be Guillermo Del Toro’s proudest or most personal moment as a filmmaker, but it’s where he honed his craft as a mainstream director, while also learning how to inject at least a bit of his own twisted vision into any movie.
Blade II was a hit, and it made Del Toro a commercially viable filmmaker as well as a renowned one. Studios responded by again bombarding him with offers. Blade: Trinity was waved in front of him, as were Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban and Alien Vs Predator, but again Del Toro opted for a project he’d wanted to make, and been pushing to make without success, his new commercial clout finally allowing him to adapt one of his favourite comic books, and cast one of his favourite actors in the leading role.
Up until Hellboy Guillermo Del Toro’s career had, intentionally or otherwise, been operating on a ‘one for me, one for them’ basis; alternating between his artier Spanish language films and crowdpleasing, broader, American financed and made would be blockbusters. Hellboy was Del Toro’s first real attempt to unite these two sides of his filmmaking personality, and like most beginnings it’s a little bit messy.
Hellboy is a film that I’ve found myself having quite different reactions to each time I watch it, and I think that’s because its quality is liable to vary so much, often from scene to scene. When it works this film combines all the great things about Guillermo Del Toro’s cinema with an involving superhero story with a different and charming hero. On the other hand, when it doesn’t work, it can feel like wading through treacle, trudging through exposition and repetitive scenes mandated by the studio or the relatively small ($66 million) budget.
When they first met to discuss casting Del Toro and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola apparently revealed their choice for Hellboy in unison – both said “Ron Perlman”. The studio, perhaps understandably, wanted a star, and suggested Vin Diesel, but Del Toro stood his ground, and it was a fight well worth having because Perlman so completely inhabits the role that you can’t imagine any other actor wielding the right hand of doom. Perlman has an easy charm that allows you quickly and easily to get to like and identify with Hellboy, despite the fact that he’s a rather odd hero, but he doesn’t allow the funny and charming side to take the edge off the character, making the moral dilemmas of the film’s ending more believable than they might otherwise be.
Perlman also has strong chemistry with Selma Blair, playing pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, who acts as love interest for both Hellboy and the main ‘normal’ character, a young FBI agent named Myers (Evans). This love triangle works well. First of all it creates many opportunities for the stars to play a little comedy, but it also helps make the fantastical things going on more relatable, because at the end of the day these characters worries are the same as anybody else’s. Blair takes some warming up to in the role, which is a little underwritten, but she plays it nicely and never lets Liz blend into the background.
The villains, unusually for Del Toro, aren’t particularly compelling. Del Toro is a filmmaker who has always engaged with his monsters, perhaps the problem here is that almost everyone, good or bad, in this move is a monster to some degree and in spending so much time making sure that we go along with Hellboy and the rest of the BPRD Del Toro has slightly lost his villains. This means that the main antagonist – Karel Roden’s Rasputin – is left with a rather poorly defined plot, and there is little urgency to stopping him because he never feels like a major threat. Another of the issues with the villains comes not from any writing problem, but budgetary considerations. Del Toro’s original script called for several different kinds of monster for Hellboy to fight, but when the budget proved inadequate to make that happen he came up with the solution of using the Sammael monster over and over, justifying it by saying that whenever one dies, two are created. It’s a decent monster, but after Hellboy kills one of them it renders the rest rather less threatening, and sucks a little tension out of the ending.
However, one villain works brilliantly. Kronen; an armoured Nazi whose undead body is kept alive (not coincidentally) by clockwork, and whose martial arts and knife skills provide the film some of its strongest action scenes, is a brilliant character. Del Toro knows it too, every time Kronen appears he’s introduced with a proper hero shot, his choreography is fluid and punchy, beautiful and very, very cool. Del Toro has said that the way he used Kronen is one of the things he regrets about Hellboy, that he should have made Kronen the main villain, and had the final fight be between him and Hellboy. He’s right. The fight between Kronen and Hellboy is excellent, but it’s over too fast and too easily, and neither Rasputin nor the giant pile of pixels that turns up at the very end (one climax too many) is a match for Kronen.
There’s a bigger misjudgement in the character of Myers. His purpose is to be the audience, to bring us in to the BPRD and make it easier to relate to Hellboy, Liz and Abe Sapien (an underused Doug Jones, with the voice of David Hyde Pierce). The thing is that he’s just not needed. Del Toro’s script and Perlman and Blair’s performances do that job and they leave Myers, his place in the love triangle notwithstanding, seeming rather redundant. It doesn’t help that he’s blandly played by Rupert Evans, but it’s hard to see what he could have done with the role to make it more compelling.
The action scenes are often excellent, with far better CGI than in Mimic or Blade II. A particularly strong set piece has Hellboy fighting a Sammael in a subway station. Here Del Toro uses the whole of the set inventively to create an action sequence that delivers on the visceral level, advances Hellboy’s character and is very funny.
While it is a patchy film, with parts that clunk alternating with moments that work perfectly, Hellboy has moments, both visual and character based, of real beauty and lyricism. The graveyard sequence is a visual masterpiece, with the snow that pops against Hellboy’s red skin helping to create several genuinely lovely images. It’s the film’s ending, though, that really hits the emotional buttons hardest. It’s rare that you really get to connect with and root for a relationship on screen, but the final moments of Hellboy, and Red’s word’s to Liz after she seems to return to life, are truly touching. I wish that the whole of Hellboy were as good as its finest moments, but its shortcomings end up feeling small because when the movie does get it right (which is most of the time) it is a brilliant and different superhero film.