Guillermo del Toro Retrospective part 2: Vampires, Superheroes and the Horrors of War

And we’re back for the second round of our look at the work of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. There’s a lot of ground to cover this week, so I’ve got less time to dither around and gab on about how damn excited I am for Pacific Rim, so let’s just dive in, starting with Del Toro’s second English-language movie:

Blade 2 (2002)blade_ii_2002_1

The chance to work on a comic book movie is probably what lured del Toro back to Hollywood after the disaster that was Mimic, and while Blade 2 isn’t the best thing he’s ever done, it’s definitely a step up from Mimic. Following the original Blade film, directed by Stephen Norrington, the sequel follows the half human, half vampire (which is technically called a dhampir if you’re a massive nerd) vampire hunter Blade, as he teams up with a group of vampires originally trained to kill him to take down a new strain of vampires that feeds on normal bloodsuckers.

The original Blade was a dark, gritty, largely humorless bloodbath of violence and f-bombs that played things alarmingly straight before even X-Men got the idea that the only way to film its comic book universe was to suck all the color and whackiness out of it.

Blade 2 takes a different approach, more “comic book-y” as much as I loathe that phrase. His usual black humor is on full display and the creatures, makeup effects, colorful characters and overall aesthetic of the world have been punched up a few notches, with more ninjas and Ron Perlman and less of an oppressive, downtrodden atmosphere than its predecessor.

Which isn’t to say it’s really that amazing, it is still fairly dumb in the long run, but it’s at least a fun kind of dumb, which is damn well more than you can say for Blade 3 at least.

But with del Toro back and having a better time in Hollywood, the stage was finally set for…

hellboy-posterHellboy (2004)

Hellboy is easily one of my favorite del Toro movies, in the top two if not the top spot all together. Not because it’s artful and moving and makes you wanna cry at the end, like say Pan’s Labyrinth, but because it’s just a really fun movie.

Adapated” from the comic of the same name by Mike Mignola, the story follows Hellboy, a paranormal investigator/professional monster puncher who works for a secret government organization and who also happens to be a demon the Nazis plucked from hell as an infant who was then rescued and raised in America. I say “adapted” because as good a movie as Hellboy is, I will admit quite freely that it does miss the mark in adapting Mignola’s comic, being far more “big effects-driven action movie” in tone than Mignola’s fairly somber, dark comic.

However, if you’re willing to overlook that, Hellboy is one of those few truly clever, creative action movies that keeps you smiling ear to ear the whole damn time you’re watching it. This is a movie where literally anything can show up at any time, from clockwork Nazi ninjas, a fishman voiced by Niles from Fasier and even Grigori effin’ Rasputin.

Hellboy isn’t the most artful or poetic of del Toro’s films (we’ll get to that in a second) but it, as well as its sequel, is definitely among the most fun. And hey, fun’s ok, y’know? But if you’re looking for less big red fellas punching out Lovecraftian monsters and more artistry, del Toro delivered next with…

untitledPan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Switching gears entirely from the action fun shooty bang bang fun of Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth is less clever action fun as it is “this movie will scare you so hard and make you weep so many bitter tears you will be an deflated balloon of skin and hair by the time its over.”

Again, set after the Spanish Civil War, the protagonist, Ophelia, is taken to a secluded army base in the forest, where her mother’s new husband (a high ranking officer in the fascist government) is raging war against guerrilla rebels. But like a demented(er) Miyazaki movie, Ophelia routinely escapes into a magical world of fantasy, where a vaguely sinister faun tells her she’s the lost princess of the underworld and sets her on a series of tasks to prove her lineage.

What really works in Pan’s Labyrinthine, besides the excellent creature effects and suit acting courtesy of Hellboy actor Doug Jones, is that it really keeps you guessing about a lot of things. Is the faun a benevolent guardian to Ophelia or a sinister figure? Are the fantasy sections really happening or just a young girl constructing an elaborate fantasy to escape the cruel world she’s been brought to? Is the movie a fantasy film set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, or a Spanish Civil War film set against the backdrop of fantasy? Surprisingly, very few (if any) of these questions really get answered.

If Hellboy is in my top 2 del Toro movies, Pan’s Labyrinth is the film it’s constantly wrestling for supremacy. Of course, that’s to say nothing of del Toro’s last film to date….

hellboy2posterHellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)

Pretty much everything that can be said of Hellboy can be said of its sequel. It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s worth a watch. However I will admit I do like the first one a little better. Something about it clicked a little more. Maybe it’s the slightly bloated script, maybe its the absence of David Hyde Pierce. Don’t get me wrong, Hellboy 2 is still a hella fun movie, but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first one.

This time around, Hellboy and the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense have to square off against a rogue elf bent on awakening an ancient army of golden robots (well…magic robots. Like I said, anything can happen) and conquering the world. Not quite as original as “Grigori Rasputin is back from the dead and he and his Nazi ninja pals want to awaken an ancient Lovecraftian tentacle god,” but hey, it still works.

With an ampler budget, the effects have been ramped up considerably for this one and the absolute highlight is the Troll Market sequence, which practical special effects enthusiasts watch in the wee hours of the night on repeat when they’re feeling lonely. There’s also a few less-practical cgi beasties that make for some impressive fight scenes, but really the in-camera effects steal the show.

And that, my fine friends, brings the Guillermo del Toro retrospective to a close. It’s been a fun two weeks and hopefully I’ve added a few films to your watch list. If not, maybe I’ve at least learned ya something about a weird Mexican director and the crazy awesome films he makes.

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