The term “visionary filmmaker” gets thrown around quite a lot when marketing movies. Usually what that actually means is “he uses a lot of CGI,” because if you’re just interpreting a comic book panel for panel, that doesn’t make you a visionary in my book. But there are a precious few among directors who have earned the moniker and deserve to have it herald their newest venture. One of those is Guillermo del Toro, whose work stands as some of the most visually stunning and imaginative pieces of fiction ever put to celluloid. He has a well-documented love of fantasy, horror, and the occult, which he uses to great effect in his movies, and most of his eight films (the ninth will be the exceedingly Gothic-looking Crimson Peak out in October) are dark fairy tales that COULD be shown to kids, if not for their gore.
Below, I’ve ranked all eight of del Toro’s feature films. I like all of them, so don’t yell at me for the order.
8. Mimic (1997)
It’s not entirely fair to put del Toro’s most contested and troubled production on the bottom of the list, but, while Mimic does have some creepy atmosphere and a thoroughly unique monster design, it’s also a pretty bog-standard ’90s horror movie that wasn’t too dissimilar from something like The Relic or Phantoms. It supposes that there is a giant genetically-enhanced insect that has evolved a short period of time to be able to look like a person (sort of) when its wings are folded, to blend into its surroundings. Now, it’s up to the scientist who created them, and some other people only moderately involved, to go into the sewers of New York City to find and destroy these things. I haven’t watched del Toro’s director’s cut, but I’d imagine it has to be better than the Miramax/Dimension cut we currently have. Don’t mess with visionaries, people; they know what they’re doing.
7. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
When I saw this movie upon its release in the late summer of 2008, I didn’t like it. I thought the design of the creatures and magical settings was incredibly rich and impressive, but thought the story and script were pretty silly. Well, I finished watching it again, for only the second time, mere minutes before writing this and I can tell you: both of those things are still true. It’s a completely dazzling visual marvel with art direction and creature effects perhaps on par with the best there’d ever been. And while the basic story, of the BPRD gang having to stop and ancient elven prince from raising a nigh-unbeatable mechanical army to destroy the human world, works just fine, the script is just overly silly for no real reason. Hellboy in del Toro’s world is a more comedic character than he had been in the comics, but this is just slapsticky and strange. Plus, we’re to believe he impregnated Liz Sherman somehow? I mean…HOW? Hellboy II is exactly like Batman Returns for me, in that I wish there was a function on the Blu-ray to watch it with only Danny Elfman’s isolated music track so I don’t have to listen to the godawful dialogue.
6. Blade II (2002)
This, I believe, was the first Guillermo del Toro movie I ever saw and it’s still quite good, and remarkable for one basic reason: it’s the only good Blade movie. And it’s actually doing something different and unique: if Blade’s a daywalker, who is the scourge of vampire kind because he’s half human, so what would make him need to team up with vampires? Perhaps to take on a new variety of bloodsuckers who feast exclusively on vampires. That’s the ticket. Del Toro is clearly fascinated by vampires and different…strains…of them and I love that Marvel allowed him to make such a dark horror film from one of their properties. It might have helped that it wasn’t nearly as mean-spirited as the first Blade movie. There’s a very definite grey and silver color scheme in this whole movie that accents the vampires’ pallid complexions, and this movie showed that del Toro could do action just was well as frights.
5. Cronos (1993)
Del Toro’s first feature is also one of my favorites. It’s his first foray into vampirism, but with a truly unique and del Toro-y tinge. It’s not about garlic and wooden stakes; Cronos depicts vampirism as drug addiction through mechanical means. An old man (Federico Luppi) finds a centuries-old device that looks like a scarab and when wound up (it’s all clockwork and whatnot), it attaches itself to his hand. The insectoid creature inside feasts on his blood, at first making him younger and more virile, but soon leaving him a junkie in need of a fix, even going so far as to lick blood droplets off a bathroom floor. To make matters worse, the device is being sought by a nearly-dead crime boss and his son (Ron Perlman) who threaten the man’s granddaughter. The movie becomes a sweet sort of bonding movie between the girl and the old man which presupposes the other Spanish-language films he’d go on to make.
4. Hellboy (2004)
I really loved this movie when it first came out, and I still quite like it, even if, now that I’ve become a big fan of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics, it doesn’t quite hold the same appeal as it once did. This was truly a passion project for del Toro, whose own art is very much in the same style as Mignola’s, and he fought as hard as he could to keep the visuals of the characters and the worlds the same. One famous story says some of the studio execs wanted Hellboy to be like a werewolf or Shazam, a regular human who could turn into Hellboy at will… WHAT?! While del Toro certainly made the characters’ actions different from the comics (it was he who made Hellboy an adolescent in emotional maturity and made Liz Sherman his love interest and Professor Broom more of a father figure), the general conceit of him being the son of Satan who is meant to open the ancient doorways in space for Lovecraftian gods to come through remains the same. Even Rasputin’s still here.
3. Pacific Rim (2013)
Now, I have a lot of the same problems with Pacific Rim as I do with the Hellboy movies (namely the on-the-nose and overly-descriptive dialogue) but I would be a fool to deny just how technically gorgeous and exhilarating it is to watch giant robots fight giant monsters. Del Toro made this movie as an exercise in world-building and he certainly achieved that. You’re right into the world and the plight of humanity having to face threats from monsters coming up from the deep and building two-pilot robots to combat them. It’s pretty damned sweet. Clearly an homage to the Japanese kaiju movies (they even use that term) and mecha anime, but done in a style that only del Toro could do. It almost goes without saying at this point, but it’s a gorgeous piece of design and direction. Like all of his movies, del Toro’s fingerprints are on every frame.
2. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
This film should have won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007, but it was robbed. Still, just to get nominated for this masterful achievement proves its magic. What del Toro does the very best, I believe, are these historically-set dark fantasy films in which children have to grow up very fast surrounded by harsh times and corrupt and petty adults. This one follows a young girl in Spain during the second World War, who is the stepdaughter of a sadistic and cruel army officer, begins to escape into a fantasy world at the urging of a Faun, played by del Toro staple Doug Jones. He has her go on many quests, including retrieve something from a giant bullfrog, enter the dining hall of the terrifying Pale Man, and generally get into mischief and danger. Whether or not these things actually happen or if they’re just in her imagination is irrelevant; children need an escape, especially when their lives are surrounded by so much unpleasantness.
1. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
And my favorite del Toro film is also perhaps his simplest. A boy during the Spanish Civil War comes to live at a home for boys in the middle of the desert, in the courtyard of which there is a massive, unexploded bomb. In the creepy old house, he begins to see a glimpse of a ghost of a young boy. The ghost’s intentions are not known at first, but slowly, the boy learns many secrets about the house and its past. The grown ups in the film have their own sets of problems, including the elderly professor (Federico Luppi again) who is impotent and in love with the home’s one-legged matriarch, but she’s been having an affair with the handsome young Franco-supporting deliveryman who is secretly only sleeping with the woman to get at a fortune hidden somewhere on the grounds. It’s a mystery story, and a ghost story, and a coming-of-age story, and it’s done with del Toro’s typical sense of narrative and scene construction. That the whole thing has a dusty brown color palate doesn’t lessen the ghostliness of the horror elements. It’s a movie I love and can return to over and over again.
This is just my personal ranking of Guillermo del Toro’s movies; surely yours is different. Let me know below in what order you’d place them. There are no wrong answers, even mine.