REVIEW: Blu-ray Only Release: Guillermo Del Toro

Film: Guillermo Del Toro
Release date: 25th October 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 313 mins
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Marisa Paredes, Eduardo Noriega, Ivana Baquero
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Fantasy/Horror/Mystery/Thriller/War
Studio: Optimum
Format: Blu-ray
Country: Mexico/Spain/USA

Covering the three most critically acclaimed of his works, this Guillermo Del Toro box set takes us from his directorial debut in the 20th century, through to his most recent pieces of the 21st. Each film carries and emphasises the hallmarks of what has made Del Toro one of the most popular, and followed directors of the modern era, with his self-confessed fetish for all things peculiar, haunting, mysterious and a painstaking attention to detail.

Jesús, an elderly antique dealer living in Mexico with his granddaughter, Aurora, stumbles across a discovery in the base of a newly delivered statue: a golden scarab-shaped device. While attempting to uncover the secrets and history to this unknown item, it unfurls legs, to fully mimic a beetle, and without warning attaches itself to Jesús.

When the Cronos device eventually releases itself, Jesús finds that his health has improved drastically, he feels vigorous and full of vitality. With extended research, he identifies and dates the contraption back to a 16th century alchemist, who claimed it could gift immortality to anyone that used it. Unfortunately for Jesús and his family, the device’s existence is not exclusive to them - a band of American criminals are in search of it for their employer and dying businessman, Dieter de la Guardia.

Led by his violent nephew, Angel, the two factions come to loggerheads as they demand its possession and will stoop to any means to obtain it. However, this is the least of Jesús’ worries, as he slowly begins to discover that the cost for the eternal life is an extreme aversion to sunlight and a more disturbing need for human blood…

Del Toro’s debut is a startling affair that positions itself firmly in the horror genre, yet does so with great warmth and affection. Less associated with slashers and more with the psychological torment of films like The Shining, Cronos doesn’t offer formulaic scares, but proves to be frightening as a deeply unsettling study and deconstruction of our own humanity and mortality.

What is truly the emotional coup de grâce, and proves to be the cornerstone of its very success, is Del Toro’s focus on the human side of the story. Del Toro is equally as concerned by how the Cronos device is affecting Jesús, as he is with how this affect on Jesús is damaging his relationship with his granddaughter, whom he loves dearly. The director manages to show the young child as not someone who is naïve to the circumstances around her, but as a young woman who is very aware of the happenings in her life, yet still remains deeply loyal and devoted to her grandfather.

Cronos is a disconcerting experience, which harbours the very essence of what makes a horror film successful, yet, at its heart, remains an identifiable human tale; a gripping drama about a loving family in turmoil that once it has grabbed hold of you proves very difficult to shake off.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Written while he was in college, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone is a dark gothic thriller set amidst the backdrop of the last days of the bloody Spanish Civil War.

Carlos, a young boy, is left at an orphanage on the outskirts of a remote village, awaiting the return of his Republican father from the conflict. Run by two elderly administrators and a couple of additional assistants who initially befriend Carlos, his life there begins to suffer, as not only does he find himself bullied by the other boys but by a malicious spectre that haunts the buildings decaying hallways.

As Carlos slowly awakens to the possibility that he may be a permanent resident, the orphans slowly come together, sharing resources and discussing the nature of this ghost, which many have either heard of or seen. It is concluded the apparition is that of a boy named Santi, who used to live at the orphanage before disappearing on the same night a bomb dropped in the forecourt.

The boys must work out who they can trust and find out the mysteries to the ghost of Santi and the undetonated bomb, which resonates as a constant reminder to the violent war that surrounds them...

Cited as Del Toro’s most personal work, The Devil’s Backbone builds on the themes and styles that garnered him such a reputation. The director skilfully weaves together the moments of dread, with an appreciation for suspense, and dramatic tension that would have impressed Hitchcock. He alerts the audience to the idea that something is amiss, and that something disturbing may be about to happen, but drip feeds the dread into our subconscious, proving to be a clinically arresting experience.

Del Toro makes expert use of his decrepit sets, taking the boys into dark alcoves, narrow corridors, enclosed rooms and skin-crawling situations but, as with Cronos, tempers the consternation with a great sadness. He reveals the trials and tribulations of the orphanage through the eyes of a young boy who is experiencing these events with little understanding of why.

As with Cronos, Del Toro’s true flair doesn’t come from lavish cinematographic landscapes, but from a simple, affecting and ultimately gut-wrenching emotional pull that is the human aspect of his creations.

Yes, The Devil’s Backbone is the chilling tale of a horror mystery, but alternatively it is an upsetting portrayal of a child, and childhood, amidst the atrocities and fallout of war.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Once again, written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is the spiritual companion piece to The Devil’s Backbone.

Set five years after the Spanish Civil War, a young girl named Ofelia and her pregnant mother arrive at the encampment of their military stepfather and husband, respectively.

Captain Vidal is a fascist charged with the eradication of Spanish Marquis guerrillas that are scattered through the area, and has little time for either Ofelia nor her mother, merely concerning himself with the imminent birth of his son who would become his heir apparent.

Ofelia’s pregnant mother, Carmen, is severely ill with her condition worsening, and with Ofelia feeling trapped and scared that she may be left alone with her stepfather, she delves deeper into her reading of fantasy stories to escape the harsh realities around her. Then, one evening, a fairy visits her and guides her to a labyrinth behind the house in which they are all staying. At the heart of this labyrinth is a faun who challenges her to complete three tasks, which if completed before the night of the full moon will result in her true identity being revealed...

An event, which had taken years to achieve, and had Del Toro carrying around a notebook which was filled with “doodles, ideas, drawings and plot bits,” Pan’s Labyrinth is widely regarded as the director’s magnum opus. Filled with fantastical imagery influenced by everything from Alice In Wonderland to the art of Francisco Goya, Pan’s Labyrinth is in itself a complex serpentine trail of symbolism that tackles the grim realities of war, while balancing that with fairytale creativity and a serious contemplation on religious death and rebirth.

Del Toro’s imagination is at its most poignant and powerful in Pan’s Labyrinth, with scenes and constructs that live long in the memory. Yet despite these whimsical and engaging distractions, the director once again focuses on the plight of the individual.

As the film progresses into darker more disturbing territory, the fantasy begins to give way to the harsh realities of the world in which Ofelia has to inhabit, and it is her reluctance to become a part of that world and her fear of such an existence that is the crux which binds all the elements together.

On repeated viewings there is an immense array of iconography and parabolic information that can be dissected, yet it is the emotional attachment, the sympathy and empathy, we develop with Ofelia that moves us, and, as always, Del Toro does so in such a subtle and masterful way.

An impressive array of cinema for which the Del Toro undertook the writing, directing and production for all three - perhaps giving us the most accurate and insightful look into his creative thought process, which, like many of his films, is deeply personal. For those wishing to delve further into the mind of one of Mexico’s finest, a little nod to the etymology of the names he chooses for his characters will not only heighten the experience but make you respect his absolute dedication to his works even more. BL

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