Guillermo del Toro tells a ghost story. His mother’s grandmother died, and one night his mother was crying in her bed. Suddenly, she heard the silk of the dress of her grandmother, smelt her perfume. Then she felt her grandmother touch her back, so she screamed, leapt up and ran out of the room.
Del Toro told this story, that his mother told him from her own experience, during the press tour for Crimson Peak, and it reveals much about him as a filmmaker. Think about the way he tells it: “she heard the silk of the dress.” What a strange but beautifully stunning detail to draw out of the experience, perhaps recalled in that way by his mother or perhaps amended by him. She heard the silk. This memory, not his own but obviously significant to him, served as the launching point for Crimson Peak, which speaks to the way del Toro works first from details and then builds from there. His visions, though they seem self-evidently expansive and realized onscreen, start out as mere impressions and nuances, images and specificities, before becoming much bigger and more complex.
In this case, he drew further inspiration from various Gothic romance stories, Victorian horror (Mary Shelley, Anne Radcliffe) and early Universal horror films. The resulting film is a deeply felt experience, drawing on huge themes but rooted in personal detail. Del Toro is a master of looking, because he knows exactly how to construct a visual landscape that begs to be looked at. Some do argue that he lacks a knack for real direction, for the ability to take his overt ideas and handle them with the right sort of care. He has care for design, for production, for feel. But he seems to struggle to consolidate it in a way that truly takes a risk.
But this is a slight misunderstanding of the power of del Toro’s control over the image, or at least what it can uniquely achieve. The gothicism and the camp and the opulence are the goal, and it’s not vapid or depthless or “not enough.” His films, especially Crimson Peak, can seem to prioritize and bring particular attention toward their constructedness, but the result is not a lack of humanity, but, in fact, a way to bring it into clearer focus. The overt attention to detail (obsession to detail) creates a heightened artificiality, to the point that it starts to feel alive in an entirely new way. The intricate nature of the sets — the costumes, the construction — is overwhelming. You feel the textures, you feel the passion and effort, and what you realize is that there’s something else happening, there’s a sense of horror that is made more acute because of the detail, because of the nuance. A careful articulation of horror, and a visceral romance and romanticism, a melodramatic appeal from a nostalgic mind motioning at and ultimately leading toward an inventive and novel fantasy.
Guillermo del Toro was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico in 1964, which makes him 51 years old. He’s been making movies since he was eight, when he got his eager hands on his dad’s Super 8 camera, creating stories about killer potatoes bent on world domination. He spent 10 years as a special effects makeup designer, learning under “The Godfather of Makeup”, Dick Smith, the man behind the special makeup effects in The Godfather, The Exorcist, Scanners, Taxi Driver, Amadeus and Death Becomes Her. Smith died at age 92 in 2014, and del Toro remembered him by writing, “Without Dick Smith, I would not be making movies. Dick always said, ‘strive for realism.’ So don’t strive to make a monster a monster… Don’t go for the effect; go for the reality.” Del Toro eventually started his own effects company, before directing his first feature film, Cronos, which was finally released in 1993.
Soon after the release of his second film, Mimic, his father, Federico, was kidnapped by bandits back in Guadalajara for 72 days. He was eventually returned safely, but del Toro’s entire family moved to the United States as a result. Guillermo has said that the experience of that kidnapping has come to define his life, but that he has tried to define himself as a storyteller in a different way, focusing on the fantasy that is familiar now to us.
He claims to refrain from explicitly engaging in politics in his films, though there are potential complications when one looks more closely. Regardless, del Toro’s career is really defined by what he learned from Dick Smith, and the constant struggle between the fantastical and the real. Or perhaps it’s not a struggle. Maybe it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, a give-and-take that brings both into a new kind of filmic expression. Bring this back, because why not, to the fact that del Toro was raised in a strict Catholic household that he rejected and chose to deal with by retreating into his imagination. A simplistic parallel, but useful in decoding his approach to filmmaking. The reconciliation between these two polar opposites and finding a way to make them work together. Forcing them to do so. Don’t strive to make a monster a monster.
“Even as a kid,” he said in an interview with The Scotsman, “I knew that monsters were far more gentle and far more desirable than the monsters living inside ‘nice people.’” Del Toro’s way of going for the real, as Smith insisted, was to sympathize with the monster. Like Mary Shelley, he may have a normal protagonist like Edith (Mia Wasikowska) in Crimson Peak or Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) in Pan’s Labyrinth, but he stresses the significance of the monsters that populate his worlds. They are more interesting to him, and to the audience, and he understands this thoroughly.
When asked during a Reddit AMA about where his inspiration comes from, del Toro wrote: “I am (and I have always been) a weird guy. And my mind doesn’t function completely in the real world. I have to, every day, abstract myself into a language of fable and monsters to try to manage and understand what the world means. I interpret the good and the bad in our lives through monsters and parables that I find help me grasp who we are, or how we can make sense of this life we have.”
That self-abstraction is a process through which his films are made. Each one is an attempt to understand the people around him, by looking at his monsters and monstrous humans. Intimacy is scary, and del Toro confronts the monstrosity of his creations up-close, whether it’s the Pale Man or Jessica Chastain. This is a man who owns a second home just to hold all his books, artworks and other fantasy memorabilia, a huge space to contain his over-flowing geekery and inspiration. The fairy tales are his religion, having since rejected the Catholicism he was raised with.
In The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, theorist and philosopher Tzvetan Todorov described what he means by the Fantastic, as the realm between the real and the imagined: “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.” Applied to the films of Guillermo del Toro, we can see how his stories take place within that realm, particularly considering Ofelia’s interactions throughout Pan’s Labyrinth with the Faun and other creatures, and the ghost(s) residing inside Crimson Peak. The realm of the fantastic is del Toro’s comfort zone, and we’re lucky enough to be witness to what he does inside it.
Crimson Peak is a delicious 119 minutes of del Toro’s attention to detail being manifested purely, an unforgettable and sick traipse through his perspective of what lies inside us. Most of his previous films have been examining humanity by expressing different elements of that process through monsters, whereas Crimson Peak is the first time that he is directly addressing the monsters in us, the less desirable monsters living within supposedly “nice people,” as he said in the Scotsman interview. Perhaps this represents a shift in del Toro’s approach to filmmaking, and to life. Perhaps he is finding a way to explore the realm of the fantastic in a new way, a more honest way. Honest, but even more horrifying.
Jake Pitre is a writer based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has written regularly for Movie Mezzanine and PopOptiq and has been published by Ottawa Magazine. He is a Master’s candidate in Film Studies at Carleton University. Find him on Twitter @jake_pitre.