For me, Guillermo del Toro is the most consistently interesting filmmaker working today. The Mexican maestro has shown over the years that he can turn his hand to movies at any budget level, from his tiny early films through to the comic book blockbusters he made in the noughties and the sophisticated mid-budget fare that has become his focus in recent years.
The thing that comes through most clearly in Del Toro’s work is his humanist approach to filmmaking. He believes in empathy above all else – human empathy for fellow humans, or an audience shifting that empathy towards a ghost, a monster or any other kind of supernatural creature. It’s not something many directors can pull off, but Del Toro has done it time and time again.
But despite his success and reliability, he has often struggled to get stuff made. His adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness has been in development hell for years and, at one point, he was set to helm The Hobbit. Now, though, after winning an Oscar for The Shape of Water, he’s pushing ahead with some great projects, including an anthology horror series for Netflix and, perhaps most excitingly, a stop-motion adaptation of Pinocchio for the streaming service – his first animated film.
With that in mind, it seems like a good time to rank Guillermo del Toro’s 10 feature films as director…
10. Hellboy (2004)
It’s a mark of Del Toro’s consistency that this perfectly solid film sits at the bottom of the list. One of his first forays into the world of comic book blockbuster filmmaking, it’s a slightly overlong tale that leans on spectacle over character. Given how well Del Toro handles character when he allows it to be the focus, that’s a real shame.
With that said, though, Hellboy is an enjoyable film that benefits from the synergy between Del Toro’s love of monsters and the weird and wonderful world of Mike Mignola’s source material. It’s just all a little too much.
9. Blade II (2002)
Again, the low placement of this film on the list is simply a result of the fact Del Toro doesn’t make bad movies. Blade II is an engaging and deliciously violent blockbuster that shows just how compelling the superhero genre can be when it is spliced and mingled with the DNA of horror films. The team behind the upcoming New Mutants should definitely take note.
It’s a movie in which the studio clearly showed faith in Del Toro to take the character and the story in the direction he wanted. In recent years, that has certainly proven to be the way to make a superhero work, from the barmy comedy of Taika Waititi in Thor: Ragnarok to James Wan’s wildly successful Aquaman in the last couple of months.
8. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Everything that was slightly disappointing about the first Hellboy film was rectified in The Golden Army four years later. It’s packed with some grotesque beasties and enjoyable spectacle, as well as satisfying emotional arcs for all of the key characters. Ron Perlman, of course, is even more gruffly charismatic than he was the first time around.
This film is Del Toro at his most accessible, but he hasn’t compromised on any of the idiosyncrasies that make him who he is. As the union of Hollywood and the European arthouse, it’s very impressive indeed.
7. Mimic (1997)
Famously, this is the one film of his that Guillermo del Toro speaks about in slightly unfavourable terms. Having only made Cronos at that point, he felt that his vision was compromised by working in the studio system. He has since released a Director’s Cut of the film, though, and Mimic in this form is a very fun B-movie. There are lashings of the thematic depth and arthouse appeal that you’d expect but, at its heart, it’s a silly film about giant bugs.
Mira Sorvino is great in the lead role and the grimy environs of the New York City sewer system are realised with palpable filth. The creature design, too, is a feat of gross-out beauty, revealed to the audience slowly via some surprisingly subtle direction and tension. In this case, Del Toro has done better than I think even he realised.
6. Pacific Rim (2013)
A lot of stuff goes bang in Pacific Rim. A lot of noise is made too. And there are giant robots. But that’s where the similarities with Michael Bay’s awful Transformers franchise end. Del Toro’s kaiju vs. robots smackdown is one that is realised with real heart beneath the warped metal. Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi tell an elegant story of connection, while Idris Elba brings gravitas as the leader of the human resistance.
Del Toro’s action sequences are big and bombastic, but they’re also entirely coherent and easy to track. The audience never loses the emotional connection to what’s unfolding because Del Toro doesn’t lose sight of the human beings lurking beneath the titanium fists and swinging automobiles. It’s the best of his American blockbusters, for sure.
5. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
It might not be the best of Del Toro’s movies set during the Spanish Civil War – more on that later – but The Devil’s Backbone is the ultimate humanist take on the ghost story. The undead child at the centre of the horror in this film isn’t really even the centre of the film itself, with an unexploded bomb in the courtyard of the orphanage setting casting a bizarre aura of threat.
Like all of Del Toro’s horror efforts, the monsters in this movie are not the monsters at all. It’s the forces of General Franco and his fascist regime who are more terrifying and evil than anything from beyond the grave. That Del Toro manages to make his political points while also delivering a very scary movie indeed is testament to his remarkable understanding of what makes the horror genre tick.
4. Cronos (1993)
Guillermo del Toro’s debut feature very much served as a mission statement for what was to come. It’s a vampire story, but one in which the central player is an entirely benevolent antiques dealer – a man who doesn’t want to quench his thirst with human blood, but wants it to go away by any means necessary.
Federico Luppi’s central performance is simply heart-breaking at the centre of a story that is built around the relationship between him and his granddaughter. There’s also a malevolent businessman and a thuggish Ron Perlman in play, combining to make a horror tale that uses vampiric iconography and style to tell a very human story.
3. Crimson Peak (2015)
Savaged by some critics on its initial release, Crimson Peak also transpired to be a rather expensive box office bomb. It grossed just $75m worldwide from a budget of $55m and was dismissed as a hysterical, frivolous slice of gothic nostalgia. That assessment is not entirely unfair, but it fails to recognise how wildly entertaining the movie is. Even if it were just Jessica Chastain shrieking for two hours, it would be more than enough for me.
Del Toro takes the gothic surroundings of his mansion house set and fills them with candlelight for an atmospheric spookfest that gives way to lurid violence in the unhinged third act. One day, it’ll get the love it deserves but, for now, it’ll have to live with the bronze medal slot on this list.
2. The Shape of Water (2017)
After more than two decades as a critically beloved filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro finally won his Oscar last year for The Shape of Water. His tale of the tender romance between Sally Hawkins’s mute cleaner and an imprisoned fish creature won him the award for Best Director, as well as netting Best Picture over some far more conventional Academy picks. It’s a fitting culmination of Del Toro’s career to date, making explicit his dissolution of the dividing line between the human and the supernatural.
There’s something very appropriate about it being a Guillermo del Toro film that broke the Academy’s long drought in which they failed to recognise genre material. The Shape of Water is a beautiful, elegant movie that manages to horrify and fascinate in equal measure, while also wrenching at the audience’s heartstrings. It’s a real triumph.
1. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
I absolutely love the idea that, in between two very demanding comic book blockbusters, Del Toro just popped back to Europe to make one of the best movies of all time. Pan’s Labyrinth uses fairytale imagery and flights of fancy to draw attention to the evils of human beings at their most unimaginative. It’s as much about the power of escapism and imagination as it is about the evils of Francoism, finding depth amidst the darkness in the way that Del Toro is so often able to achieve.
On a more basic level, this is a movie that features some of the most memorable images in modern cinema. Everyone who has seen the chilling Pale Man is unable to remove that character from their mind and the malevolent faun is another great achievement of Doug Jones’ creature performance. Given the fact this is a film about imagination, it makes sense that Del Toro’s is in high gear.
Pan’s Labyrinth is not just Del Toro’s masterpiece. It deserves a spot on any list of the best movies of all time and is one of the great dark fairytales.
Header image courtesy of Gage Skidmore.