As a horror movie nut and a fantasy fan, I’ve always been fascinated by the visionary realms of Guillermo Del Toro. The worlds he creates in his films combine the fantastic and the macabre equally. Del Toro’s films occupy the so-called “liminal zone,” where the lines between horror and fantasy blur. This unique style, along with his meticulous attention to detail and talent for creating striking visuals, has resulted in a filmography that stands out in the annals of cinema history.
In this post, the Longbox of Darkness will examine six of Guillermo Del Toro’s most memorable films, exploring how he blends horror and fantasy to create unique and unforgettable movie experiences. Join us on this dark journey through the liminal zone, starting with Guillermo’s first feature film, Cronos.
1. Cronos (1993)
Del Toro made his directorial debut with Cronos, a Spanish-language horror film that introduces audiences to his unique visual and storytelling sensibilities. In this film, we see the first inklings of the director’s blending of horror and fantasy and his penchant for exploring themes of immortality, transformation, and the supernatural.
Cronos tells the story of an antique dealer, Jesús Gris, who discovers a mysterious, golden scarab-shaped device. The device grants him eternal life but at a terrible cost: an insatiable thirst for human blood. This Faustian bargain and the film’s dark fairy tale aesthetics set the stage for a superb cinematic experience that melds horror and fantasy.
Throughout the film, Del Toro employs the traditional elements of Gothic horror (e.g., mysterious artifacts, hidden secrets, and dark mansions/locations) while infusing the narrative with an underlying sense of wonder and innocence. This delicate balance of horror and fantasy is a hallmark of the director’s work, and Cronos serves as an excellent introduction to his liminal zone.
2. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
The Devil’s Backbone, Del Toro’s third feature film, is a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. It follows a young boy named Carlos who arrives at a secluded orphanage after his father is killed in the war. He soon discovers the ghost of another boy, Santi, haunting the orphanage and unraveling a dark secret that binds them together.
Del Toro masterfully combines horror and fantasy elements in The Devil’s Backbone, creating an atmospheric, supernatural tale steeped in historical context. The ghost of Santi serves as both a harbinger of doom and a tragic figure, embodying the film’s themes of loss, innocence, and the horrors of war.
The film’s historical setting adds depth and complexity, making it a ghost story and a commentary on the brutal nature of war and its effects on those left behind. Del Toro’s blending of horror and fantasy with a powerful historical backdrop creates a haunting and evocative experience that resonates long after the credits roll. A must watch.
3. Hellboy (2004)
Based on the comic book character created by Mike Mignola, Hellboy marked Del Toro’s foray into the world of big-budget comic book adaptations. The film follows the titular character, a demon summoned by the Nazis but raised by the Allies, as he battles supernatural forces that threaten the world.
Hellboy showcases Del Toro’s talent for merging horror and fantasy on a grand scale. The film’s protagonist, a demon who fights for the forces of good, embodies this liminal space between horror and the fantastical, serving as a symbol of humanity’s complex and often contradictory nature.
Del Toro infuses the film with Gothic sensibilities, drawing on folklore, mythology, and Lovecraftian influences to create a rich and visually stunning world. The film’s creatures and monsters, such as the monstrous Sammael and the ethereal, aquatic Abe Sapien, are both terrifying and unforgettable in their design, seamlessly blending the two genres.
Hellboy is a testament to Del Toro’s ability to adapt existing material while maintaining his unique vision, bringing together horror and fantasy elements to create an entertaining and heartfelt film.
4. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, is an enchanting blend of dark fantasy and historical drama set against the backdrop of post-Civil War Spain. Del Toro masterfully weaves together the poignant story of Ofelia, a young girl who escapes the brutality of her surroundings through a captivating parallel world. With intricate storytelling, the film offers a rich tapestry of symbolism and allegory that immerses viewers in a world where reality and fantasy intertwine. The mesmerizing visuals, haunting score, and exceptional performances, particularly by Ivana Baquero as Ofelia and Sergi López as the ruthless Captain Vidal, elevate this movie to a cinematic gem.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro expertly blends fantasy and horror elements by seamlessly intertwining the two realms – the grim reality of post-Civil War Spain and the enchanting yet equally menacing fantasy world inhabited by magical creatures. This blend is achieved through the eyes of the protagonist, Ofelia, whose experiences in both worlds parallel and affects each other.
Del Toro employs atmospheric visuals, haunting set designs, and unsettling character designs to evoke wonder and fear. The Pale Man, for instance, is a terrifying creation that underscores the idea that the fantasy world is not an entirely safe haven for Ofelia. Meanwhile, real-world horror is represented through the character of Captain Vidal, a sadistic and brutal figure that embodies the cruelty of war.
By juxtaposing these fantastical and horrific elements, Del Toro effectively uses the contrasting realms to heighten the sense of peril, enhance the emotional impact, and amplify the film’s central themes of innocence, resilience, and the transformative power of imagination.
5. Crimson Peak (2015)
Crimson Peak, a Gothic romance with strong horror elements, tells the story of a young woman named Edith who, after marrying the enigmatic Sir Thomas Sharpe, moves into his decaying ancestral home, Allerdale Hall. As she uncovers the dark secrets of her new home and family, Edith is haunted by ghostly apparitions, harbingers of the horrors beneath the surface.
Del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a visually sumptuous affair, drenched in a Gothic atmosphere and featuring meticulously designed sets and costumes. The film embraces horror and fantasy, with its supernatural elements and intricate ghost designs firmly rooted in the director’s signature liminal zone.
The film’s narrative combines the traditional elements of Gothic horror (e.g., forbidden romance, betrayal, and family secrets) with Del Toro’s fantastical storytelling, creating a thrilling and immersive experience that is both terrifying and mesmerizing. Crimson Peak is a love letter to Gothic horror, exemplifying Del Toro’s unique ability to meld horror and fantasy seamlessly and compellingly.
6. The Shape of Water (2017)
The Shape of Water, which earned Del Toro his first Academy Award for Best Director, is a romantic fairy tale set during the Cold War. The film follows Elisa, a mute janitor working at a secretive government laboratory, who falls in love with an amphibious humanoid creature held captive within the facility.
Del Toro’s mastery of the liminal zone is on full display in The Shape of Water, as he crafts a love story that transcends genre boundaries, melding horror, fantasy, and romance. The film’s creature design, inspired by the classic Universal monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, is both terrifying and enchanting, highlighting the director’s ability to create monsters that evoke sympathy and terror in equal measure.
The Shape of Water is a visually stunning and emotionally resonant film, showcasing Del Toro’s talent for storytelling and his continued exploration of themes such as love, loneliness, and the transformative power of human connection. The film’s blending of horror and fantasy creates a poignant and enchanting experience, solidifying Del Toro’s status as a master of the liminal zone.
Guillermo Del Toro’s body of work is an extraordinary testament to his unique vision and skill as a filmmaker. From his debut with Cronos to his Oscar-winning triumph in The Shape of Water, Del Toro consistently demonstrates his ability to weave together the elements of horror and fantasy, creating films that are at once terrifying, fantastical, and emotionally resonant.
As a fan who gushes way too much about Guillermo’s filmography, I invite you to explore the liminal zone of his films with me. There’s magic and horror within the blurred lines of these unforgettable cinematic experiences. Each film is a testament to Del Toro’s mastery of the genre, showcasing his talent for crafting stories that transcend the ordinary and transport us to haunting worlds filled with wonder… and terror.