Editorial: Why Guillermo del Toro's Films Are Never What They Seem
by Dan Marcus
October 16, 2015
After years of off-screen hell, the newest movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, titled Crimson Peak, comes out nationwide today to unleash a kind of cinematic hell upon viewers everywhere. However, much like every one of del Toro's films, even though Crimson Peak is being sold as a horror movie (it's not) it's actually far more tragic than terrifying. As del Toro has tried to bring to people's attention on Twitter and other forms of social media, Crimson Peak is much more of a gothic romance than a straight-up horror film. Unfortunately, most people will go into the film this weekend expecting to be scared out of their minds and instead they will find something much more tragic and somber. With that let's take a look at why Guillermo del Toro's movies are never what they seem – and why Crimson Peak is no different.
When you think of Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker, you probably think of a few things. You might think of fantasy, gorgeous visuals or fantastical storytelling. Whether it's The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro is a master at creating a movie that can both terrify you and astound you with its beauty. Crimson Peak falls into that category, even though it is more of a gothic fairytale romance than the horror film it is being advertised as. However, Crimson Peak isn't the first time a del Toro movie has been (in a way) falsely advertised.
For many people, Pan's Labyrinth was disappointing – not because it wasn't a great film, but because it wasn't the film a lot of people were expecting. The advertisements (and people's expectations) built up the film as a fantasy picture along the lines of Lord of the Rings or perhaps to a lesser extent del Toro's Hellboy movies, even though in the actual film the fantasy elements are few and far between. Pan's Labyrinth is actually a searing look at a young girl growing up during the hardships of the Spanish Civil War. The fantasy sequences are exactly that – fantasies concocted by the little girl as a coping mechanism. It's a rather poignant and beautiful film, so much that it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, eventually winning three Oscars for Best Cinematography, Art Direction and Make-Up.
While some might have expected more fantasy out of Pan's Labyrinth, I always thought the movie struck a great balance between the fantasy and the harsh realities of the film's central storyline. Del Toro's greatest strength as a storyteller is finding the right balance in his movies – something that a lot of other filmmakers fail to understand or even grasp. Another great example of this balance is del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, which juggles a terrifying premise featuring ghostly apparitions – like Pan's, also set during the Spanish Civil War – and an innocent coming-of-age story. What makes del Toro such a gifted filmmaker is how he takes the genres he explores and utilizes them skillfully and artfully.
There's a great moment in Pan's Labyrinth that reflects this skill impeccably. It involves the villainous Captain Vidal (played by Sergi Lopez) smashing someone's face and it's so shocking because the film's tone – with its whimsical fantasy-esque moments – gets punctuated by searing and brutal violence. The moment is partly so shocking because there aren't many, if any, comparable moments of violence in the film before or after, so it stays with you far after the scene has ended. It's a hallmark of del Toro's craftsmanship as a filmmaker – and it's something he brings to every one of his movies, including Crimson Peak.
There might be some that go into Crimson Peak this weekend and walk out of the theater disappointed, but hopefully audiences at least take note of the film's dark and gothic beauty. There's a certain irony to the film's tonal balance – while the film isn't an outright horror film, in many ways it's the best horror film in many years. It's a great leap forward for a genre that seems filled with found footage films and teen slasher movies and sequels galore. Del Toro brings back a sense of old school chills with Crimson Peak and it's absolutely refreshing.
In a lot of horror movies, you go in expecting to be scared. While it is understandable why Crimson Peak was marketed as a horror film, I wish it wasn't. People will go in expecting to be scared and while the film is terrifying at times, it's more profoundly tragic with a gothic love story that harkens back to old age storytelling and filmmaking that we simply haven't seen that much of in decades. I argue it would be more rewarding if it wasn't marketed as a horror film, releasing the film of the the weight of those scary expectations, but studios have to sell del Toro's movies somehow.
Which is the real rub and probably the big reason why del Toro's movies aren't instantly sellable. Pacific Rim is a movie that some love and some hate and I understand why people feel both ways. I personally loved Pacific Rim, a film that unabashedly knew what it was, embraced it and was full of heart and energy. It had more emotion and characterization than any of the last Transformers movies combined. However, audiences probably had no idea what to expect from Pacific Rim besides a stupid Transformers rip-off as the previews advertised. I've spoken to many people that actively avoided the film because it looked like a poor man's Transformers. The tone it has is not for everyone – it's not afraid to be silly, but it's also not afraid to be heartfelt – and complaints I've heard mostly deal with the mix mash of tone.
So, in a traditional sense, Guillermo del Toro's movies will never be sellable because they defy convention and expectation. Crimson Peak is a hard movie to sell and anyone that's seen it will attest to that. It's a movie that is both stunning and frightening - featuring del Toro's trademark punctuations of brutal violence - but I guarantee you after the movie is over you'll be thinking of the characters and the story way more than you will the times you jumped from being scared. That is also the beauty of del Toro's movies, which are never simple or what they seem at first glance. Guillermo del Toro is one of the most gifted filmmakers working today and that is primarily because his movies are so dense and multi-layered.
What makes del Toro so unsellable – when say someone like Christopher Nolan makes billions with his movies – is because del Toro prefers the fantastical, while someone like Nolan prefers taking the fantastical and making it practical (and while someone like Michael Bay prefers the… well, complete lack thereof). The fantastical will always be the harder sell and why a movie like At the Mountains of Madness will dwell in development hell for years, while something immediately recognizable and sellable such as Transformers 5 will get greenlit overnight.
With that said, just make sure to go into Crimson Peak this weekend with an open mind. Don't expect to be scared at every whim and maybe you might be able to gleam all the film has to offer because trust me – the film has to offer a great many things, aside from looking stunning. While the film won't be the straight-forward horror some of you might be expecting, trust me when I say the film is all the better for it. It's not just a horror film and it's not just a gothic romance. It's a Guillermo del Toro movie. What do you think?