A Beginner’s Guide to Guillermo del Toro’s Monsters

The stuff from your nightmares are no match for these creatures.
Heart Of Summer
By  · Published on May 25th, 2018

At the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, Guillermo del Toro finished his Best Director speech by saying, “I thank you, my monsters thank you.” Del Toro has given us some truly unique and creative creatures throughout his career. Influenced by his fascination with grotesque beings, del Toro imbues humanity and individuality into the monsters he molds. Let’s dive into some of his most memorable films and explore the meaning and influences behind the director’s collection of creatures.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

One of del Toro’s most notable works to date, Pan’s Labyrinth really put the director on the map as a cinematic visionary. Here, del Toro’s monsters are fantastical and frightening. They are some of his most beautiful and inspired creations. With deep seeded meaning, del Toro’s film is a disobedient fairytale, warping narrative norms in exchange for something more reflexive and historically prevalent.

Originally called The Labyrinth of the Faun, the title was changed by del Toro to Pan’s Labyrinth, with Pan being the name of the goat-human nature god. Collaborator Doug Jones was charged with the roles of the Faun and the Pale Man. It is said that the Faun’s costume was the best Jones had been cast to wear. Del Toro rendered the piece out of his own design, creating his own makeshift system so Jones could walk in the suit and have his legs digitally removed in post-production.

The Pale Man, on the other hand, is something out of a nightmare. Where myth meets monster, we find this gluttonous creature at the head of a sprawling feast. Placing his eyeballs into the palms of his hands and reaching them to his face is one of the most iconic shots in del Toro’s filmography and the fantasy genre. When Stephen King sat next to del Toro during a screening, King shuddered and squirmed at the sight of the Pale Man chasing Ophelia down a corridor. If that isn’t mastery of horror, I don’t know what is.

Del Toro has been known to draw and mold his ideas through sketching. The director had, at one point, lost his notes and mockups to the film in a cab. But when the driver tracked him down, del Toro realized the importance of making the film. As much a coming-of-age story as it is fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth is a crowning achievement for del Toro.

Hellboy & Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2004 & 2008)

Let’s dive into the Hellboy films. Here, the director builds an entire world with creatures fantastical and misunderstood right under our feet. These two films are identifiable by just a few frames. All you need is a picture of Ron Perlman as the title character, and there you have it: it’s Hellboy. But del Toro doesn’t have to rely on his own imagination here.

Mike Mignola created the Hellboy comics, with the title character making his first appearance in 1993. When del Toro took on the task of directing the live-action adaptation, he dedicated himself to rendering the aesthetics of the world of Mignola as accurately as possible.

Upon first meeting, both del Toro and Mignola said Perlman was the only choice to play Hellboy. Of course, there was some artistic license taken with the live-action rendering. Changes to creatures’ characterizations and some aspects of their physical appearance were either enhanced or reduced. It all depended on where del Toro wanted to take his adaptation.

Hellboy is a creature straddling two worlds, as are most of del Toro’s monsters. Hellboy and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones again), among others, have the task of protecting humanity from the things that go bump in the night. In the first film, we get a general introduction to the world we live in and the creatures that coexist with us. With Hellboy II: The Golden Army, worlds collide. And here, we really see del Toro’s passion for meaningful movie monsters.

The Angel of Death is an iconic part of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. This dark, ghastly creature sports a mushroom-shaped head with eyes on her wings, bearing similarity to the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. Hellboy II, I’d venture to guess, is one of the only films containing this multitude of monsters, made with practical effects. With the public’s growing confidence following the success of Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro felt a certain responsibility to push his Hellboy films into territory that seemed most natural. By introducing audiences to the spooky and bizarre, del Toro creates a whole new world and a welcome new screen adaptation of the beloved comic.

Pacific Rim (2013)

The Kaiju are del Toro’s largest monsters to date. Rising from the depths of the ocean to harvest the resources of our planet, these creatures wreak havoc everywhere. But in del Toro style, he doesn’t render one type of Kaiju as the pinnacle of this submerged race. Influenced by the magnitude of Goya’s painting The Colossus, these creatures bear differences that make destroying them all the more complicated.

The Trespasser Kaiju makes their grand appearance upon San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The Kaiju take several days to destroy, proving to be some of del Toro’s deadliest monsters. Unlike his other films, here del Toro opts for global spectacle. Del Toro uses impressive CGI to manifest the large scale that doomsday movies demand.

Pacific Rim isn’t del Toro’s most lauded film. In his filmography, it’s surprising that he even helmed the project. But where these monsters lack the slight of humanity most of his creatures inhabit, he individualizes the ocean-dwelling creatures. While the film explores a means to destroy them, we learn the complexity of their creation. As with anything del Toro does, there is an abundance of thought, care, and homage placed into these creatures. This time, it’s just on a larger scale.

Crimson Peak (2015)

Del Toro found the motivation to make Crimson Peak while living through his own quasi ghost story. While location scouting for The Hobbit (del Toro was originally slated to helm), he and his crew members stayed in a haunted hotel in New Zealand. One evening, del Toro heard murderous sounds coming from the vent in his room. And thus, Crimson Peak was set in motion.

Originally written following Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak is not your average haunted house story. Del Toro was inspired by The Shining and The Haunting, among other films, for this particular feature. But these ghosts are hardly transparent white figures. Much like with Hellboy, there’s a real sense of del Toro’s passion for makeup and prosthetics in the design of these creatures. The ghosts haunting Crimson Peak look tortured in every manner. These are some of del Toro’s more compelling creations, soaked in red clay, a color likened to blood, from their contorted heads all over their disfigured bodies. The noises they make — screeching and yowling — further their menacing presence.

Again, we see the individuality that del Toro infuses in his creations. No two ghosts are alike. Each has suffered different forms of unimaginable pain. You need not look further than their faces to see the toll that pain takes, even in death. Influenced by bodies discovered in medieval times, del Toro’s ghosts are not just forms of their former selves. Where would the horror be in that?

The distortion and lack of decomposition render these souls as lost, visceral beings left to loom within the confines of a gothic mansion. It’s actually rather poetic the way del Toro portrays his ghosts. The attention to detail, like everything del Toro does, gives his specters humanity. Though they are horrifying upon introduction, each register of their individual characteristics makes the beings inhabiting the halls even more compelling.

They may be the ones haunting (or protecting) Edith, but there is a discernible tragedy in their existence. By using real bodies to portray these ghosts, we don’t get mimicry of unaffected bodies. The sprawling length of their arms, jaws bent out of alignment, and their visible ribs make us cautiously curious about the demise of these once-living beings.

The Shape of Water (2017)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about del Toro’s Best Picture-winning film. Ever so lovingly dubbed the “fish sex movie,” in this feature del Toro’s artistry and narrative command really hits a contemporary note. The director has called this film “a fairytale for troubled times.” The Shape of Water originates from stories like “Frankenstein” and Creature From The Black Lagoon. A romantic twist really drives home what much of del Toro’s filmography commentates on.

The Amphibian Man is now an integral part of Academy history. Based on del Toro’s love for the 1954 Creature From The Black Lagoon, the Amphibian Man is portrayed with the deepest humanity by (no surprise) Doug Jones. Of his menagerie of creatures, Amphibian Man might be his most unique monster, if not his most inspired. The entire narrative around Amphibian Man and the humans amongst him is a ballad for the Other.

It took del Toro and his team over nine months to decide on the look of the creature, making this one of the most difficult movies del Toro has designed. If the film wasn’t received well, del Toro said he would retire from directing completely. (He said something similar following the release of Pan’s Labyrinth.) But The Shape of Water was, and is still, embraced by critics and audiences. If you’re thinking that it’s just the “fish sex movie,” I’d ask you to reconsider. But if you’ve seen it and that’s what you’re left with, then at least you will have had a unique cinematic experience.

Del Toro said in an interview with fellow director James Cameron, “The only thing that can confirm the existence of angels are demons.” We’ve barely seen the beginning of the creatures that del Toro has created, and this guide is a mere list of his most notable works. After watching any of the aforementioned films, you can check out Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II, and the TV series The Strain.

We’re lucky to have a director like Guillermo del Toro making films today. His movies are thoughtful, derived from the innateness of showing us monsters and creatures that have kept the man working for years. At the Golden Globes, del Toro thanked audiences on behalf of his monsters, but I would like to thank him for showing audiences that not all monsters live to terrify — and that true monsters are often hiding in plain sight.

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An entertainment writer, with work featured in multiple places. Loves movies and television almost as much as her cat.