A thin line exists in Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-language trilogy between exaltation and blasphemy and damnation and transcendence. Over the course of Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth, characters scurry to justify their wants with religious and political ideology, laundering their wills and longings through cultural precedent. Lost in these machinations is an elemental sense of morality, which the supernatural cathartically returns to the fore. This thin line is explicated by a villain in Cronos who likens Jesus to a mosquito, reasoning that both could walk on water, and so humankind was meant to harness the abilities of the insect. The differences between Christ, a savior, and a common parasite seem to be of no consequence, as they’re linked by this aging capitalist for their common wielding of power.
Del Toro is a moralist drawn to the platitudes of parable, and these three films, with their prodigiously textured and heavily symbolic references to Catholicism, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Spanish Civil War, are enthralled with the notion of Good (rebels) duking it out with Bad (usually Franco-era fascists), while Innocents (women and children) are left to pick up the pieces and are subsequently caught in the crossfire. These self-consciously similar films all liken true bravery to rebirth, which entails the quiet nurturers and closeted warriors on the sidelines of war to quietly tend to infrastructure while men burn the figurative house down in the name of something forgotten. The schematic can vary from rhythmic to repetitive, chiefly in Pan’s Labyrinth, which finds del Toro’s powers as a formalist blossoming mightily at the expense of spontaneity and his puckish sense of humor. But even this trilogy’s most baldly preachy moments are charged by an unresolved tension, as del Toro is excited by the exertions of power that he decries.
This tension, most directly embodied by del Toro’s obsession with mechanical imagery (particularly clocks), exists in the art of every gifted formalist, whether said art is filmmaking, music, painting, or writing. True formalists wed their sensibility, their will, with the commonly accepted tropes of their art, forging a personalized expressionism—an act which represents dominion over form. Which is to say that, of course, formalists are attracted to power, whether or not they make a moral issue of it in their work.
Del Toro’s empathy, like that of most horror-minded filmmakers, resides with his villains and monsters (which aren’t interchangeable), as they’re figurative or literal generals like him, wranglers of a populace to serve a common task, as well as deviators from the idealism that essentially shackles del Toro’s imagination—constituting his artistic eating of vegetables. Goodness in del Toro’s films is more often an abstraction, an obliging texture within a grander palette, existing out of need for counterpoint. Despite the screen time accorded to them, the innocent children in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are endearing yet weirdly beside the point—pawns in del Toro’s formal chess set. They aren’t human enough to merit warts.
The Devil’s Backbone tweaks this moralistic binary, as its monster is a grown-up del Toro child, a groundskeeper for an orphanage tucked in a desert far away from the Spanish Civil War, but not far enough away for individuals to escape the war’s ravages. Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega) initially strikes one as an entitled bully, a callow young man who resents the hands who feed him, but the narrative gradually reveals that he’s suffering from the sort of exploitation to which the rebellion-sympathetic orphanage would like to believe itself superior. Jacinto is good enough to sexually service the orphanage’s older matriarch, Carmen (Marisa Paredes), an arrangement that’s implied to have existed since he was an adolescent, but not respected enough to be taken into her counsel, sowing the seeds of a microscopic fascist counter-rebellion within the grander democratic rebellion. These ironies explode The Devil’s Backbone out of the strict realm of gothic myth, steering it into a terrain of free-associative bitterness and desire. Del Toro transcends the meta archetypes that dominate his work, forging something truly and terrifyingly human. The film is a drama first, and an essay on myths and history second.
Seen next to The Devil’s Backbone, which del Toro encourages in the supplements included in this set, Pan’s Labyrinth hasn’t aged as well. The film is tactilely hypnotic and gorgeous in a fashion that few other contemporary filmmakers can muster, and so it feels churlish and literal-minded to voice dissatisfaction with it. But the characters are rigid symbols, and del Toro’s treatment of his various pet preoccupations is humorless. The rhyming pattern established between young Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero) fantastic quest and evil General Vidal’s (Sergi López) brutal efforts to suppress a wilderness rebellion never takes intuitive flight, feeling hermetic and theoretical—locked off in an alternating holding pattern. Imagine in The Wizard of Oz if Dorothy kept checking in on Kansas throughout the film.
Yet, Pan’s Labyrinth is surpassingly beautiful, with intricate levels of subtlety existing underneath the film’s message concerning the coping powers of make-believe. The quite purposeful parallels to The Devil’s Backbone pay resonant dividends, as both exist, at their broadest, as chamber dramas with certain western flourishes, each containing the civil war to escalating stand-offs on singular remote properties. Each film is certainly more than the sum of its parts, as The Devil’s Backbone dramatizes fascism’s victory while Pan’s Labyrinth surveys the fall-out and the potential for hope and possible further insurrection. Yet Pan’s Labyrinth truly comes alive when following Ofelia, when she’s talking to the unforgettably ambiguous faun (Doug Jones), escaping the Pale Man (Jones), or crawling deep into a gold-tinted tree to do battle with a poisonous yet intangibly poignant frog.
Del Toro’s supreme gift as an artist flourishes during these moments, as he informs his monsters with a sense of texture and personality that temporarily shuts off any grander concerns. When the monsters are on screen, they exist for their own sake of primality, displaying their own prismatic majesty. (The way that the Pale Man detaches his hands from his ancient table to pursue Ofelia, the accompanying sound effects suggesting the ringing of ancient door knockers, is the stuff of great primordial horror.)
Watching del Toro’s trilogy all together in a compressed sitting for the first time, however, it was Cronos that proved most captivating. Cronos has the sense of play that characterizes American productions like Blade II and the Hellboy features. In these films, del Toro isn’t pressured to dramatize all of Spain’s collected weight of atrocity, and so he’s freed to inform his hunger for mythology and monster movies and literature with audaciously amusing perversity. Cronos lacks the polish of later del Toro works, and it’s all the more lively and moving for its rawness—for the way its shoestring surreal-ness corresponds loosely and tellingly with the protagonists’ desires.
The Cronos device, a golden scarab housing a timeless insect that curses people with the powers and limitations of non-traditional vampires, remains one of del Toro’s greatest creations, its ironic regality commenting elegantly and subtly on the God-defying entitlement that yielded its creation, enslaving a creature into a cage for others’ power, cursed to live potentially forever as a “biological filter.” The creature enacts its own revenge, reducing men to leeches who, say, suck bathroom floors of blood, lapping the fluid up desperately like a dog from a dish. Later, when the story’s hero, Jesús (Federico Luppi), is granted his first opportunity for sweet death, he hangs upside down half-conscious from a wrecked car—an image that del Toro frames so as to simultaneously suggest vampire bats and inverted crucifixion. Before Jesús is thrust into this situation, his would-be killer, Angel (Ron Perlman), lays on him affectionately, seemingly amused by their plight. It’s one of those sweet, mysterious moments which del Toro often grants his creatures, but which belongs, in this film, to the humans.
The Criterion Collection has released editions of Cronos and The Devil's Backbone before, but these transfers live and breathe with a newfound sense of luster and decay. Guillermo del Toro's characteristic colors—gold, blue, magenta, and cayenne—are robust and rich across all three films, while blacks are deep and foreboding. Cronos and The Devil's Backbone have a more tactile sense of actors' facial features than before, reveling in the wrinkles and the youthful shine of the various generationally contrasting characters. There's now a heightened sense of rot in Cronos, a pristine awareness of the sharp, angular imagery of cityscapes and industrial settings that intensifies the film's brutal mixing of tragedy, pathos, and humor. (The Cronos device itself is a visual stand-out, as that yellow really pops.) And, yes, certain colors in Cronos and The Devil's Backbone are more faded than before, but purposefully so, reflecting the age that weighs on their atmospheres, rather than inattention in the restoration or filmmaking. For the lusher Pan's Labyrinth, this transfer provides a greater color range between the deepest blacks and lightest lights, achieving a vibrancy that eluded the original murky DVD. The soundtracks are superb aural tapestries (the scores have lush, spectacular body), reveling in the filmmaker's tendency to establish character detail through the smallest noises, such as when the faun in Pan's Labyrinth moves seemingly for the first time in eons, unbending and un-creaking its long, angular limbs with gestures that are sonically reminiscent of the Tin Man—if the latter were a creature of the soil.
Most of the supplements included in this extensive, gorgeously bound box set have been culled together from prior editions, though they merit the preservation. Guillermo del Toro's three audio commentaries remain the best features, as this is a filmmaker who's remarkably comfortable discussing every facet of his methods. Del Toro is a profoundly erudite man, a walking encyclopedia of culture, particularly pertaining to myths, folklore, world history, and cinema. In these commentaries, del Toro walks one through his use of color, his sense of screenplay structure, his various influences, all with a sense of gleeful conversational energy.
In Cronos, the director discusses the influence of alchemy on the film's aesthetic, ruminating on the notion of distillation as the drive of the science, which influenced the chalky skin of the vampires, among other things. (Their skin represents an ironic purity, achieved at great soul decay.) Correspondingly, the film's colors are variations of "chemical colors": red, gold, black, and white. In Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro observes the subtle visual differentiations established between the film's "drab" reality and the extraordinarily detailed underworld of the title, as well as the fairy tale "rule of three" that dictates the film's plotting and organization at many turns. The grand takeaway of these commentaries is their elucidation of del Toro's hunger for texture, and his willingness to work and push himself and his collaborators to achieve it. Inevitably, del Toro uncovers one of his liabilities: His obsessiveness can lead to anal retentiveness, a tendency to which the filmmaker appears to be alluding when he mentions his use of archetypes and says that he isn't in the business of creating "Cassavetes characters."
A variety of odds and ends cover similar ground, though the featurettes and galleries allow us to actually see the work behind the scenes. There's extensive coverage of del Toro's research notebooks, and several opportunities provided for us to navigate their pages, with pop-up videos providing short del Toro interviews seemingly within the volumes. Each film is accorded an introduction by the director, and there are evocative older interviews with key collaborators such as cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and actors Ron Perlman and Federico Luppi. On Pan's Labyrinth, a new interview has been included with Doug Jones, the performer behind del Toro's most famous monsters, and he affectionately details the origin of their relationship, when Jones was contacted for pick-up shots on Mimic. An excellent new discussion between del Toro and author Cornelia Funke allows the artists to discuss the role of fantasy in their work and lives at length. A variety of trailers and TV spots round out this immersive package, as well as a full book featuring writing by Neil Gaiman, Michael Atkinson, Mark Kermode, and Maitland McDonagh, along with production notes and sketches by del Toro and illustrators Carlos Giménez and Raúl Monge.
Maybe one could carp just a bit and inquire about more new material, but this package provides an awesome cornucopia of detail and beauty—enough to honor the fastidiousness of Guillermo del Toro’s exacting art.