Guillermo del Toro Fest

If you’re a fan of horror, which you must be if you read my stuff, then get over and follow Grimm up North, as these are the guys who put this on and there’s another coming up on 19 August for John Carpenter. It’s well worth your time, I can assure you.

Before we get onto talking about the films – spoiler alert here, as I do tell you ALL about them – I want to talk a little about Guillermo del Toro and the venue itself – The Plaza in Stockport.

Guillermo del Toro Gomez is a Mexican film director, screenwriter, producer and novelist and, surprisingly for me, is NOT related to Benicio.

His directorial credits include the four films I went to see – Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II and Cronos – but obviously extend well beyond these. Del Toro seems to be as prolific a producer as he is a director and I have seen a number of his produced films; my favourites being The Orphanage, Mama and Puss in Boots (I know, but who can resist those eyes?).

Did you actually know that del Toro is also a novelist and, not only that, but that he penned The Strain, which I believe has been made into a TV series? Is there no end to this man’s talents?

Del Toro was originally chosen to direct Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films, but left due to production problems, but he is still credited for his contributions as a co-writer. Hands up who knew this fun fact?

His work has many themes running through it and some of the better known ones are as follows:

  • Strong connection to fairy tales and horror
  • He has a lifelong fascination with monsters as he sees them as symbols of a greater power.
  • Use of insectile and religious imagery, amongst other things
  • Frequently collaborates with Ron Perlman, Doug Jones and Federico Luppi

It was rumoured that del Toro would be working with Universal on a Frankenstein movie (one of his all-time favourite characters), but this doesn’t appear to be the case, given the Dark Universe has enlisted Oscar Winner Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) to direct their next release – Bride of Frankenstein.

The Plaza could not have been a better venue for this day of back to back Del Toro movies. The Plaza is an Art Deco venue, built in 1932 as a Super Cinema and Variety Theatre. It was designed to evoke the glamour of the era, with its sumptuous surroundings, highest possible attention to detail in its customer care and an eclectic mix of screen and stage presentation, all supported by the finest Café dining experience in the region.

I am pleased to say that the Art Deco styling remains intact today, enabling me to settle into elegance of a bygone era to enjoy films of a not so bygone time.

Now, I think, it is time to talk about the films themselves.

Cronos 1993 – Federico Luppi & Ron Perlman

I didn’t know anything about this film before I sat down to watch it and must admit to groaning when I found out it was largely subtitled. I always find that reading the subtitles detracts from watching and taking in the film. This issue, however, did not bother me in any of the films, as I rapidly became engrossed in the story.

The Cronos device is a device created hundreds of years ago by a scientist who was searching for the key to eternal life. It contains within it an insect which when fed your blood will, in exchange, inject into you eternal life. The downside is that you develop a thirst for blood and need to feed regularly to prevent your tissue from dying.

Sound familiar? This story, in essence, tells the story of how to create a vampire, as this is essentially what the Cronos device does. It does give the user eternal life, but it comes at a cost – a thirst for blood and an intolerance to sunlight.

For me, as a writer, Del Toro succeeded in creating a believable world in which I could foresee such a device existing. The story then kept a good pace and had the conflict between Jesus (Luppi) and De La Guardia over ownership of the device, with De La Guardia having the instructions and Jesus having and using the device. Needless to say, things went horribly wrong, illustrating the fact that you do need to understand the instructions before you use something, even if it’s only to know what can go wrong if not used properly!

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopes & Maribel Verdu

Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale that overlaps with real life. The fairy tale tells of the Princess of the Underworld who escapes as she wants to see the sun. On her escape, the sun wipes all her memories and so she doesn’t know who she is or where she’s from. Ever since, a Faun from the Underworld has been searching for her.

The name Pan, I believe, relates to the Greek God of the Wild, who also resembled a faun. This is supported by the Spanish name for the film – El Laberinto del Fauno.

Ofelia, who comes with her mother to live with her bullying stepfather, Vidal, is presumed by the Faun to be the lost Princess. To prove her origin, the Faun sets her three tasks. She passes the first, but fails the second, causing the Faun to abandon her to a life of hell with a stepfather who doesn’t want her; her mother having died whilst giving birth to her stepbrother.

Her only ally is Mercedes, Vidal’s maid, who is also a member of the ‘resistance’ which Vidal is seeking to destroy.

The real world element is set just after the Spanish Civil war where military people like Vidal are seeking to reward the wealthy at the expense of the poor, hence the rise of the ‘resistance’.

As the battle between Vidal and the ‘resistance’ reaches critical mass, Mercedes wants Ofelia to run away with her, but Ofelia won’t go without her brother. It is this act that provokes the Faun to reappear and give her another shot. When she won’t sacrifice her brother for the chance to become the Princess, the Faun dismisses her again, leaving Ofelia at the hands of her step-father, who kills her to retrieve his son.

In death Ofelia returns to the underworld and is reunited with her true mother and father to assume her role as Princess again.

The film does bring into question whether there really is a fairy tale or whether this is all a little girl’s dream, dreamt up to banish away the horrors of war, the loss of her biological father and the dislike she holds for her stepfather. Is this, therefore, just a coping mechanism, or is it really a fairy tale? After all, there is no happy ending for Ofelia.

By creating this mystery around the origin of the Princess story, Del Toro has again created a believable world where the existence of fairies and fauns makes sense. This is critical to any fantasy film or novel, as we are asking the audience to suspend their disbelief and so we have to create a believable story within our fantasy world.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001) – Fernando Tielve, Inigo Garces, Eduardo Noriega, Junio Valverde & Federico Luppi

Also set in the Spanish Civil War, this film tells the story of Carlos, a boy who is left at an orphanage run by Carmen and Dr Casares, who are working with and hiding gold for the ‘resistance’. A former resident, Jacinto, is now the caretaker at the orphanage, but he is trying to find out where the gold is so he can steal it. In the courtyard is an unexploded bomb which is said to have landed the night an orphan called Santi disappeared and remains the focal point for many of the boys.

Through a tale of the new kid being bullied until he stands up and gains the respect of his bullies, we learn that Santi’s ghost is haunting the orphanage and is predicting doom for them all. Carlos tries to find out, in vain, what is going to happen.

Soon, all becomes clear when Jacinto, forced to leave for trying to break into the safe, returns and blows the orphanage up, killing most of the residents. It is in the aftermath of this explosion that Carlos learns that it was Jacinto who killed Santi.

When Jacinto comes back to retrieve the gold, the remaining boys set upon him and lure him to the basement, where they stab him before pushing him into the well/pond to allow Santi the revenge he desires.

This is a sad tale, very prevalent in the war, of children who lose their parents and are left to the goodwill of others for survival. A camaraderie is born which often lasts a lifetime. It is also a story of greed and opportunism and how good will win over evil no matter the setting and circumstances. The ghost story that runs through the film tells of a boy, killed accidentally, but not given a proper burial. His spirit is therefore deemed to roam his place of death until it is freed and able to move on. For Santi to move on, Jacinto needed to be punished for what he did. An eye for an eye is the path Del Toro chose to follow for his ghost story.

No one wins at the end of this film and it leaves you wondering what will happen to the boys that are left alone.

The Devil’s Backbone refers to the situation where a child is born with its spine visible i.e. no skin covering it. Dr Casares explains to Carlos that these children are said to be evil and borne of the devil. He uses this example to illustrate that he is a man of science and so knows that an open spine is created by various genetic malformations. He is trying to tell Carlos that there are no such things as ghosts. I have to disagree.

Del Toro does not create a fantastical world in this film, but instead stays in the real world, a world where ghosts roam and can be seem, especially by children; a world the same as the one in which we live.

Blade II (2002) – Wesley Snipes, Norman Reedus, Kris Kristofferson, Ron Perlman

This film sees Blade form an uneasy alliance with the vampire council in order to defeat a common enemy, known as the Reapers. The Reapers are creatures, originally vampires, whose genetics have been changed. Along with physiological changes, the creatures feed on both vampires and humans and need to feed at a frequent rate to stay alive.

The council sell the alliance to Blade on the premise that once the Reapers have decimated the vampire population, they will start on his ‘precious humans’.

Although the story is an excellent twist on the vampire tale, and the addition of Norman Reedus is a definite plus, all the fight scenes detract from the film, to the extent that I zoned out during these scenes.

The twist in the tale is that the head of the vampire clan, Kounen, is the one responsible for these Reapers, by trying to create an invincible strain of vampire. The guinea pig for this experiment is his own son, Jared, who has gone on to spawn the plague of Reapers. Nyssa, Jared’s sister, and one of those tasked with helping Blade destroy the Reapers, is horrified, but she isn’t the only one who is betrayed. Scud turns out to be one of Kounen’s familiar’s and has been working to destroy Blade.

The touching ending to a horror film, especially one where the lead isn’t really one to show his emotions, didn’t really ring true for me. A resolution – yes. A soppy ending – no.

Del Toro again created a believable world where vampires and Reapers could foreseeably exist. As I said, what let the film down were the protracted fight sequences; scenes that were in vogue at the time the film was made.