Scary Stories for the Thinking Man
Director Guillermo del Toro on love, pulp, and the politics of horror
Horror movies aren't known for their subtlety. It's a fact I reflect on as I sit in Guillermo del Toro's darkened office-cum-fanboy-playpen, viewing a sequence from the director's upcoming vampire hunter epic Blade 2. Even on the grainy, rough-cut VHS tape, the floodtide of grue is notable for its complexity and composition. There's an undead minion with literally half a head, exposed cerebellum jetting crimson as it flails about. It's cinematic moments like this, no doubt, that make poor Jack Valenti earn his keep as the MPAA's top dog, and I can't imagine these blood-soaked shots will ever make it into the local cineplex. This is horror at its most extreme, outlandish, and shamefully exhilarating.
But then there's The Devil's Backbone, del Toro's recent arthouse horror film, a shocker on the face of it, but also a quiet, brooding meditation on the terrible intersections of war and childhood, loss and redemption, life and sudden, inexplicable death. Set in a remote orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, it's a work of aching sadness and tremendous beauty, with sun-drenched shots the color of brittle amber and a poetic sensibility that betrays the vast, deep core of moral ambiguity that del Toro mines in the service of his art. And it's a ghost story. Did I mention that?
Blade 2, on the other hand, looks to be about as contemplative as a knife in the throat; it's Vampires 'R' Us with a stone-faced Wesley Snipes as the "daywalker" vamp-hunter, dispatching scurrilous one-liners and gooey nosferatu with equal aplomb. Go Team Aorta!
Those two films are the polar extremes of a career notable for its refusal to be slotted into either spookshow corner. Del Toro's debut film, 1993's utterly unique vampire movie Cronos, was shot in his native Mexico but raised eyebrows all over with its nontraditional approach to all the hoary bloodsucker clichés. A love story between a young girl and her grandfather, a vampire of sorts, the film tackled weighty questions of familial affection and responsibility in the face of unearned eternal life. Smart and stylish, it remains one of the most original horror films ever made.
Mimic, del Toro's first foray into the Hollywood system four years later, pitted entomologist Mira Sorvino against giant, shapeshifting urban cockroaches. Not as silly as it sounds, the film nonetheless was a critical and commercial misfire, and its fans are few, despite the many lyrical and literate touches that make it well worth seeing.
Currently a San Antonio resident (and not surprisingly a good friend of those other Central Texas genre fans, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles), del Toro divides his time between editing Blade 2 and collecting horror and sci-fi ephemera; his office is a treasure trove of original artwork, film props, one-sheets, and fantastic foetal props.
I spoke with del Toro recently in his dimly lit study, in between the frequent comings and goings of his young daughter Mariana and bits of Blade 2's viscera flopping across the oversized television that dominates the room.
Austin Chronicle: You're from Guadalajara, which isn't exactly known as one of the world's great filmmaking cities. How did you begin your career there, of all places, and what attracted you to film in the first place?
Guillermo del Toro: Ever since I can remember I've been an absolute freak, loving movies, collecting comic books, doing really weird illustrations and stuff like that. When I was very young, I didn't understand that movies were actually made by people -- I thought they were things that were as close to magic as possible. I thought they were things that had happened and had somehow been recorded and archived. So they had as much weight as reality for me, and when I started meddling with the Super-8 camera my dad had when I was about 8, and started my own little movies with my toys, I realized that the other movies were like that, too.
Everything in Mexico happens in the capital, in Mexico City, and being in Guadalajara was a huge disadvantage, but I was also at the same time very stubborn about making the move to the capital, which is something I share with the idea of moving to Hollywood as well. I'd rather live in Texas because it keeps you a little more fresh, you know?
Since I am an okay illustrator and an okay sculptor, and wanted only to do horror films, I started doing special effects for my own little movies, and when other people saw them they liked them enough to ask if I would do the special effects on their movies, too. Little by little, I became more professional. I studied make-up effects with Dick Smith [The Exorcist] through a correspondence course he had and eventually began landing jobs doing special make-up effects for low-budget Mexican movies.
AC: Your love and knowledge of genre filmmaking is apparent in your films. What were some of the movies that influenced you while you were growing up?
GDT: I think the main influences on me while growing up in Mexico were the Universal monster movies, some really key TV series like Night Gallery, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Twilight Zone, and the Hammer [studio] horror films. Then later, all the Italian and Japanese horror and sci-fi. Mexico was traditionally a place that would buy a lot of really cheap B-movies, so you ended up having a lot of great B-horror movies shown on TV and in the regular theatres. My Sundays were always church and a horror movie. You would see a lot of the Universal monsters and a lot of American International Pictures, and the cheaper stuff, too, like Plan 9 From Outer Space. Those were the main influences. [Brian De Palma's] Phantom of the Paradise, too, that changed my life.
AC: Were you into horror and dark fantasy authors as well?
GDT: Oh sure. Ever since I can remember, I've been into horror and sci-fi. I began by reading Edgar Allen Poe and Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Ray Bradbury.
AC: It seems like every genre filmmaker I've ever spoken to cites Bradbury as a major influence.
GDT: What's great about Bradbury is that he's someone that you think you can imitate, his style, but in reality he's such a master that it's very difficult. Everybody has that short story that over-adjectivizes in that Bradbury style. "Her breath smelled of a summer gone long ago and her eyes were like vanilla ice cream ..." and this and that. Most people who try to imitate Bradbury end up being corny. But his horror stuff is so well-crafted, it's amazing. "The Lake," or "The Last in Line," some of the stories in The October Country are just so scary because he's that good with words. So my favorite authors would be Bradbury, Clarke Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson ...
AC: All the old Arkham House writers ...
GDT: Yeah, the old pulp writers. And some of the artwork I've collected has come from there, too, artists like Lee Brown Coye, Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok. I'm still a fan. I'm a fan before a professional, and the great thing about being a fan is that you never lose the heart of it, the passion.
AC: Why are kids so attracted to horror and dark fantasy and science fiction?
GDT: Because it's one of those things that makes you dream. And it's one of the things that makes your dreams more vivid. When someone tells you to imagine heaven, it's much harder to imagine that than to imagine hell. Even in the corniest way it's easier to imagine pain than to imagine pleasure. I cannot imagine what it is to be absolutely pure and in a state of grace except for those fleeting moments of perfect love in life. But most of the time we can live with everyday malaise, we can relate to how it is to feel bad about something, and guilty, and so on. It's human nature.
AC: You were raised Catholic, and that comes through very clearly in your films. Are you still in the Church?
GDT: No, I'm completely lapsed. But I lapsed because of the organization of the Church. I think the principles are fantastic. I don't believe in the dogma of it, but I believe in the principles. I don't think the universe is as systematically organized into bad and good -- I think it's much more of a flow of things.
One of the things that The Devil's Backbone tries to do (as well as some of the other movies I've done) is that it tries to show you that at the end of an ordeal the bad guys and the good guys have both ended up doing both bad and good acts. It's really hard to draw that line between the two with any certainty.
AC: Let's talk for a moment about your first film, Cronos ...
GDT: I very much wanted to do a vampire story about the family, because in traditional European folklore, the vampire begins first with his own family before he moves on to the outside world. So the first person a vampire visits when recently resurrected is a member of his own family. There was a great story by Gogol that Mario Bava filmed as part of Black Sabbath, with Boris Karloff, and that impressed me a lot. I started from that and decided I wanted to do that same sort of film, but I would like to see the granddaughter welcome her vampiric grandfather into the home. What if she accepted him? Would the grandfather then be conflicted about drinking her blood? And I felt that could be a really nice story about unconditional love.
AC: That sense of the complexity of pure love is a theme in all your films.
GDT: Well, that's the way I feel about loving your children or loving your parents as a child. It's just unconditional. All of us are flawed. But you must love these people in your life no matter what. There's no other thing to do. Even if they're vampires!
AC: How was the experience of making Cronos?
GDT: It was very difficult. It's not like in the States, where you have outlets for making a film. It's hard to make a first movie here in the States, but it's a hundred times harder in Mexico. We don't have as organized and as abundant a series of outlets to create the first movie. And it's even more difficult if you make a genre film, a horror film, which is everywhere in the world looked upon as crap. The first time we submitted Cronos, the Mexican Institute of Film said, "This is not an art film. Why should you get government funding?" And I told them it's an artful film, a beautiful film about a granddaughter and her love for her grandfather, and it explores the themes of time and eternity and all that. And they said, "No, this is just a vampire movie." They sent it back again and again and again for four years. The movie took almost nine years to get made. I started planning it, I wrote it, I designed the Cronos Device with José Fors, a great painter in Mexico, I storyboarded the movie, and finally, after many years it was made.
AC: What sort of criteria does the Mexican Institute of Film use when they're deciding who gets funding and who doesn't?
GDT: Well, art films have to be these indeterminate melodramas. I once said that it seemed like incest was to art movies in Mexico what explosions are to Hollywood movies. You want your movie to be green-lit in Mexico, you've got to do it about some incestuous relationship. I felt that there was a way of making horror movies that was very Mexican, but that was not being executed, ever. And we were missing out on a lot of stuff because, you know, the people who I admire the most, like Alfred Hitchcock, Buñuel, James Whale, Terence Fisher, all of them were people who were doing movies within an industry, and yet they managed to remain personal in their vision. And so that is what I have tried to do, to make movies that are very personal to me, even within the framework of the most industrial, commercial structure.
AC: Do you find yourself torn between the artistic and the commercial?
GDT: Pedro Almodóvar and I were talking recently, and I was telling him that now that I've done the The Devil's Backbone, which is a small, artistic, and very personal film, I'm next going to do the exact opposite, Blade 2, which is a big Hollywood movie. He looked at me and said, "Let me tell you something: I admire the fact that you can have such an adventure as going into Hollywood movies like that, but personally I don't think I could stomach it. I'm sure of one thing, though: If you do your movies with your balls and your heart, something of you will always be there." He was very specific about the exact body parts, and I agree with what he said, completely. I seriously think that some of my best filmmaking and one of my two favorite films I've done is Blade 2. I love it as much as I do The Devil's Backbone, but it's a completely different thing.
AC: The Devil's Backbone is a political film in that it deals somewhat with the Spanish Civil War in a historical context. Is that something you had been wanting to touch on in your work, to add that degree of historical relevancy to the horror?
GDT: Yes, sure. Horror is very political, and I think most people tend to overlook that. Some horror is reactionary, some horror is right-wing: The horror where the outsider remains always the outsider and you never get a glimpse of its feelings or anything. And therefore that horror breeds intolerance. And then there's horror that is very anarchic, or left-wing, or liberal, and that is a horror that tells you that the true monster lies within, be it within the family, within yourself, or within society. And so I was very attracted to doing a political horror film. The Spanish Civil War is a ghost that haunts Spain to this day. It was never fully resolved, it just kind of ended, and it has stayed there in the background for 30 or 40 years, as an unfinished business. It was not until the Eighties that Spain really grew up and made peace with its history and made the transition into what it is today. And I thought that provided a really interesting parallel to a literal ghost story.
AC: Do you prefer working in Hollywood to Mexico or Spain?
GDT: I enjoy both. They're so different. The Devil's Backbone had roughly half the budget of Blade 2, but it isn't a film that could exist in Hollywood. The way Hollywood views children, it would be an impossible movie to make there. Most movies really deal with children in a very fake way. Children are not happy creatures that go around and are oblivious to pain and betrayal and sin. Children live in the real world, and the way they deal with that is interesting, but instead with most movies we get crap where children seemingly exist in a world of just happiness. I really love movies like The Night of the Hunter; Los Olvidados; Au Revoir, Les Enfants, where children are submerged in a very challenging reality that we know is real and exists all around us.
AC: The clips you've shown me from Blade 2 are striking, but they're also very, very violent, almost surreally so. Do you find you have to draw the line somewhere when it comes to what you will and won't show?
GDT: I'm a fan of gore in its context. I think it's much more effective to use stuff sparingly. The scene in Blade 2 [in which a character's torn throat splashes a large jet of blood against the white wall behind her] is the only thing like that in there, and yes, it's gory, but it's also very painterly. I stole that from Kurosawa's Ran. He used it in a very painterly manner on a great, classic film, and I use it in a very painterly manner on a great vampire-hunter movie, you see? It's fun.
AC: Why do you think the horror genre is so universally looked down upon, and do you find it an impediment to be tagged as a horror director?
GDT: I don't really give a shit about how people describe things in general, anything in life at all. What I find about horror is that it's something that in my experience has given me some of the most poetic images I have ever seen in a movie. Frankenstein next to a river throwing daisies in the water with the little girl, the Phantom of the Opera trying desperately to make his love known, or any of those images like that. I think Carrie, for example, embodies teenage angst in a perfect way, better than any other teenage movie I've ever seen. But I think that people have a problem in general with anything that reminds them of the negative sides of life. I think people would love to be deluded into thinking that life is happy and perfect and that we should all be great parents and great children. What I love about horror is that it tells us that being monstrous is acceptable. The good horror movies make you make peace with the monster. And that monster is within us all.
SXSW hosts the world premiere of Blade 2 on Saturday, March 16, 7pm, at the Paramount Theatre; the movie is scheduled to open in Austin theatres on March 22. Director Guillermo del Toro, actor Ron Perlman, and writer David Goyer will be present at the SXSW screening. The Devil's Backbone is scheduled to open at Dobie Theatre on March 15.