On 3 February, when Guillermo del Toro won the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film at the Director’s Guild of America awards for The Shape of Water, the Mexican filmmaker said something that will stir the hearts of genre film fans. Thanking the DGA for allowing the monster movie “as a genre to come into the conversation” — thus raising the awareness for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood — he said, “Sometimes to speak about monsters, we need monsters … Loving the other instead of fearing, it is a fable.”
Del Toro is to horror-sci-fi-fantasy what Quentin Tarantino is to B-movies. Like Tarantino, del Toro — fanboy first, filmmaker later — has taken a much derided genre into the realms of respectability, and has made it dark and sexy. Fun fact: the filmmaker’s mansion in Los Angeles, called Bleak House, is a museum of memorabilia of the macabre; apart from del Toro’s own creations and other classic film monsters, it has lifelike sculptures of Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft; it doubles as his study — it has 3 libraries, and he writes in a room designed with a gothic gloom which creates the impression that it is always raining.
In del Toro’s films, monsters are as real as fascist regimes and wars, and a whole lot of fun. They have incredible details, ideas and backstories, even when they appear for a few seconds. A great example is the mind-boggling Troll Market sequence in Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, a secret night market of creatures and freaks. There we meet a hideous looking creature which has a baby on his lap, only it’s not a baby but a tumour!
With big wins at Golden Globes and DGA, The Shape Of Water is knocking at the doors of the Oscars with 13 nominations. A love story of a mute girl and an aquatic man, a river god from Amazon, who is held captive in the research facility she works in as a janitor, set in 60s America — the filmmaker has crafted a fairytale for today. The film’s release in theatres in India on February 16 is just an excuse to make a list (in no particular order) that celebrates del Toro’s amazing creatures.
Hellboy, Hellboy (2004) & Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
A cigar chomping dude who works for The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense(BPRD), Hellboy loves cats and hates comic books (because they always get the eyes wrong!). He files his horns regularly to fit in. He is a passionate, and jealous, lover. Raised by the empathetic Professor Trevor Broom when he got sucked into earth through a portal to the dark dimension unlocked by the Nazis, he is a half-demon. He has the look of a red, hot metal ready to be struck, but del Toro and Ron Perlman’s Hellboy is more human than the humans around him.
Abe Sapien, Hellboy (2006) & Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Perhaps a distant relative of the Amphibian Man in Shape of Water, Abe Sapien is a character from the Hell Boy comics — both are played by Doug Jones. Discovered in a tank in an abandoned lab on the day of the death of Abraham Lincoln (Abe=Abraham), he is an invaluable member of the BPRD, because of his psychic powers and other extraordinary qualities. Del Toro and Jones give Abe the grace of a ballet dancer. Well-spoken, friendly and a man of good taste, Abe reads 4 books a day and likes to eat rotten eggs. And when he falls in love, he likes sappy romantic numbers but pretends he is listening to Vivaldi.
Pan, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Part man, part-goat and part-tree, Pan, the ethereal faun, played by Jones, is at the heart of del Toro’s dark fantasy. It’s Pan who tells Ofelia, the protagonist of the film, that she is a princess in the Underworld, and assigns her the tasks in order to return to the magical world. A creature mined from the myths, Pan has an ambiguity about him — menacing and kind, wise and dangerous, he is like nature itself, with all its brutality and beauty.
The Pale Man, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
When Ofelia sees Pale Man(Jones again), he is seated at a dinner table, with his eyes on his plate. He has a head without sockets but has holes in his palms. When the Pale Man fits his eyes into the holes of his palms and holds them over his non-existent eye sockets, it’s a terrifying sight. Equally frightening is Pale Man’s chamber, where Ofelia sees old paintings of him impaling innocent children. The Pale Man was created from del Toro’s memories of the time when he had seen his own skin sag after he had lost weight (beautifully illustrated in this New Yorker video), and one that scares him the most.
Jared Nomak, Blade II (2002)
Jared Nomak — leader of a pack of infected vampires on a rampage who have threatened the vampire world order — unleashes his deadliest form when he splits open his jaw and assaults his victim with a poisonous tongue — in the manner of the bloodthirsty alien organism in The Thing. But Nomak is unsettling even when he is just a guy in a hoodie — with that suave, East European look and accent, quietly entering a blood bank in Prague in the opening scene of the movie. Nomak is a monster with a personality.