Each month, we at FilmHounds take a look at a director’s back catalogue and pick their lowest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and ask ourselves – why? Why is it their least loved among critics? Regardless, we attempt to see the good in it.
Looking back at the career of Guillermo del Toro is akin to leafing through a coffee table book of beautiful creatures, gothic structures and Catholic iconography. He is rightfully considered one of cinemas great horror and fantasy storytellers. From the beginning of his career, del Toro has always brought his macabre sense of humour, and passion for the inner beauty of the outwardly ugly and vice versa to all his films, even to his studio works. Having yielding acclaim for vampiric horror film Cronos and a run in with Harvey Weinstein while making stupid horror film Mimic (still criminally underrated), del Toro returned to the Spanish language for the terrifying and moving The Devil’s Backbone to acclaim. In response, del Toro ventured back into the studio system, directing action-horror comic book sequel Blade II.
Blade II is an oddity of a film, the original Stephen Norrington film is a fun horror film with action set pieces held together by techno-music, the excessive use of the word “vampire” and the effortless cool of Wesley Snipes at the height of his movie star powers. The marvel anti-hero was looking for a sequel and returning writer David S. Goyer drafted up a script that dealt with a virus affecting vampires so the half human-half vampire daywalker Blade would have to join forces with a troupe of vampires to stop those infected with the Reaper virus.
Being to date the only film for which del Toro does not have a writing credit on, Blade II suffers where most other del Toro films do not – it’s not overtly romantic, or rather, it lacks the romanticism of del Toro’s best work. Goyer might be a die hard comic book with credits on three Blade films – the third of which he directed, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman but Goyer’s dialogue is often clunky, and lacking nuance.
What del Toro does best is melding the overt horror of the situations his characters are in with wit and emotion. There is a sharp and clear difference between the clunky exposition of Blade’s “how the hell are we going to find these Reapers?” and the wit of Hellboy’s “I’ll always look this good” speech. In fact, the film does feel like it was written by a pre-puberty comic book nerd – it’s very much on-the-nose dialogue, with lots of swearing and violence, and for a del Toro film it is oddly sexless.
But, even as a director-for-hire project del Toro clearly brings his own interests into the film. It’s a more graceful film for one – neither Norrington nor Goyer’s film have the same passion for intricate choreography that Blade II has, and you can see del Toro’s design ideals in every scene. The film’s opening with Luke Goss as a vampire overcome by the Reaper virus is set in large stone hallways and sinister bank vaults, settings del Toro has made his name in.
It’s also clear in the design of the Reapers that del Toro’s ever present notebook played a part. Not only can you see echos of the Reapers in the del Toro created series The Strain, but the extending mouth and long phallic tongue plays into the archetypical horror of the flesh that has become a standard for his work. The costumes, and sets all look to be pulled straight from the del Toro hand book most easily seen in high vampire Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann) home, filled with viles, and cases of beautiful creations.
The themes of fascism that radiate through del Toro’s work – Franco’s Army (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth), Nazis (Hellboy, The Strain), McCarthyism (The Shape of Water) – is present to a lesser extent in the form of del Toro regular Ron Perlman as neo-Nazi vampire Reinhardt. Snipes contributed a scene in which Perlman antagonises Snipes by asking if he can blush, apparently based on his own experiences with neo-Nazis.
It’s also clear that del Toro might not have had much control over his two leads, Snipes and Kris Kristofferson as the rugged Whistler, or their dynamic which is much harsher than the usual surrogate father themes del Toro involves. That being said, the supporting cast show del Toro’s desire to have character actors populate his films rather than movie stars. Perlman, Karel Roden, Donnie Yen and even Red Dwarf alumni Danny John-Jules all round off the supporting cast showing a less movie star based production than one might expect from a big Marvel film.
For all the set up, and paper thin character arcs, it’s in the final movement of the film that del Toro really manages to cut loose and show his mettle. The finale sees legions of Reapers attack Blade, Whistler and the vampires they’ve teamed with in the sewers. Not only does this provide ample protection from UV light as daylight begins to dawn but provides the dark dank subterranean setting that del Toro craves most. Sewers, caves and underground lab facilities are clearly where del Toro enjoys setting his films – Mimic is primarily set in the subway and sewer systems of the city where giant bugs lurk, Hellboy ventures into a sewage system and subway tunnels for a brawl with a hell beast, even the facility in The Shape of Water looks like it was converted from a sewage treatment plant.
Here del Toro is able to play into classic horror tropes, splitting his rag-tag group apart and picking them off one-by-one. The action in the finale feels a lot more ground that the previous action sequences which felt very derivative of The Matrix, here the claustrophobia and growing terror takes the lead over the franchises desire for pulse pounding euro-pop and leather-coat clad heroes doing backflips. The film’s famous shot of Blade surrounded by Reapers, frantically trying to kill them shows del Toro’s eye for an arresting image and his interest in the inside and outside of a person being in conflict.
Ultimately, Blade II is that most dreaded of things, a cash grab for a director being denied money for his passion projects. In his back catalogue Blade II might rank low on his good films list, but even as a director-for-hire gig del Toro manages to undercut the unrelenting tedium of Goyer’s writing to create a film that might not have anything interesting to say, but looks beautiful and at the very least provided the world with a final piece of proof that Wesley Snipes used to be the undisputed king of cool. Del Toro for the Mahershala Ali reboot, anyone?