Mexican director Guillermo del Toro ranks as one of the most significant and intriguing directors of horror since the genre’s glory days during the 1970s. Yet, in many ways, del Toro is still working towards the peak of his talents. Examined individually, each of his films seems deeply flawed and even failed. Yet when taken together—arranged and assembled as a vast quilt of images—they achieve a nightmarish splendor that demands recognition. Consider the imagery in Cronos (1993), Mimic (1997), and Blade II (2002). In these films, the images are audacious, ecstatic, ghoulish, and beautiful—they achieve something akin to a connective tissue binding the films together as an oeuvre that achieves intermittent greatness.
Del Toro’s images are ecstatic and difficult. Take Cronos as an example. To convey Jesus Gris’ intense obsession with the titular mechanism, del Toro provides a shot of Jesus in the bathroom, sweating, breathing heavily, the golden scarab affixed to his heart. It’s a shocking image, gorgeous and hideous at once. The beautiful/ugly nature of del Toro’s images is suffused with a languor and sensuality that makes them even more unsettling.
Del Toro’s use of Catholic images is far from predictable or programmatic. He appropriates religious iconography to distort time and space, to collapse the contours of the present with the obsessions of the past. A perfect example occurs in Mimic, set in a New York City where a new disease borne by cockroaches is killing off the child population. The film begins with Dr. Susan Tyler observing the dying children in a slightly futuristic hospital that is also, oddly, somewhat indistinguishable from a medieval sick chamber. Huge white sheets form canopies over the children’s beds as nuns in white gowns and habits hover over their suffering patients. This collapse of time periods suggests numerous thematic possibilities—that our sci-fi modern medicine bears a far greater connection to ancient forms of medical practice than is commonly perceived, that religious fervor and medical investigation share a common passion, and that the children, the doctors, the nuns, and the hospital all float between time and space, heaven and earth, the past and the present. This imagery prepares us for a narrative that will propose an evolutionary advance of insects approaching human levels of intelligence—which they “mimic”—and that will cause a regression to the most primitive human fears of otherness, the chthonic human terror over difference, here symbolized by the terrifying strangeness of the insect, a recurring trope in del Toro films.
The insect has, of course, positive and negative associations, and as such functions as an analogy of the ambivalence in much religious imagery. The insect simultaneously signifies birth and regeneration and the promise of immortality—the ugly, slimy caterpillar blooming into the beautiful, wide-winged butterfly. Insects also signify corruption, squalor, evil, menace, death. Del Toro matches the theme of insect regeneration to the Catholic form of the myth of resurrection, the human overcoming death and assuming divine form in Christ’s love. He uses his insect/Christ trope both satirically and poetically.
The Cronos device, for example, a gorgeously designed gold scarab housing an immortal insect that feeds on the blood of the host to whom it reciprocally gives immortal life, is both egg and spider, mother and death, hope and despair. Like a newly made jewel, its beauty draws the appraising hand to hold it. Like a predatory insect, arachnid or bird, its talon-legs spring out and stab into flesh. A golden tick, it fastens itself to flesh and sucks out blood, but like a god, it pumps back new blood into its host, to whom it simultaneously gives immortality and endless death. The host becomes a vampire, the spider, even as it becomes the device’s prey.
Reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction or David Cronenberg’s films, the theme of transformation—in particular the Christian theme of resurrection—informs del Toro’s work, both satirically and poetically. Always, transformation beckons and bedevils, its allure perfectly matched to its deadliness. In Cronos, the kindly Jesus Gris transforms into a predatory vampire who must constantly wrestle with his vampiric appetite for blood. In Mimic, Susan creates a new hybrid species of insect, the Judas Bug, to combat and kill the disease-carrying cockroach. Yet this savior turns out to be the devil: initially a messiah that rescues humans from death, it then preys upon the saved. In Blade II, the hybrid vampires created to bring the vampire race to a new level of genetic purity transform into cannibalistic predators of other vampires, with the threat that they will then prey on humans. They are, then, a new species alienated from both the vampire and the human.
Though not a Catholic work, Milton’s immortal poem Paradise Lost looms as the great controlling metaphor for all of these themes. With its luridly beautiful imagery and anguished problematization of the Original and the Copy, as well as its interest in religious purity and satirical doubling—Sin as the monstrous mother of Hell, a pack of ravenous dogs forever tearing at her womb, Satan as the dark double of Christ and Adam—Paradise Lost infuses del Toro’s antic and impassioned oeuvre.
In Blade II, Blade becomes a comic-book Christ, pinned down to a table with his arms stretched out. Metal stakes burst through his flesh, as if he were nailed by a thousand spikes, a collapse of crucifixion and vampire iconographies. The stakes driven through his vampire body just missing his heart, locked in a metal Golgotha, Blade is Christ as aggrieved vampire.
Cronos provides the perfect example of del Toro’s singular deployment of Catholic imagery. The villain, Dieter La Guardia, a wheelchair-bound, sneering baddie, feverishly collects statutes of archangels, not for any apparent religious reason, but because the Cronos device is buried inside of one. Long rows of archangel statues in prophylactic bags line his high-tech-mausoleum bedroom. This clinical collection of religious icons takes a new dimension that defies mere deconstruction. The rows of bagged angels come to seem like choked ghosts, muffled masses of buried spirits. The bagged angels counterpoint the new insects taking evolutionary flight. (There is an affecting intertext with this imagery in Denys Arcand’s deeply moving 2003 film Les Invasions Barbares [The Barbarian Invasions], when a church official, hoping to alleviate the financial burdens of his institution and examining row after row of wrapped-up icons, despairs to learn that they are all “worthless.”) Like Luis Buñuel and Brian De Palma, del Toro uses Catholic imagery satirically, but his satire has a spiritual dimension. The ache of the past, the longing for more life, the terrible fusion of the divine and demonic—all lie in del Toro’s crazy-Catholic horror sensibility.
A highly interesting aspect of del Toro’s films is their interest in the ambiguous, morally muddled hero. Jesus Gris’s love for his strangely silent and fiercely loyal granddaughter is one of his most endearing aspects. Yet by the end of the film, as a blood-famished vampire, he comes excruciatingly close to feeding on her, desecrating her constant purity. Mimic’s Susan, like Seth Brundle in Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), tampers with Nature and produces monstrosities. Blade is a human-vampire hybrid who exterminates vampires, presumably a noble goal. But Blade II comes close to suggesting that within Blade’s exterminatory zeal lies an ancillary evil, a desire to destroy that mirrors the vampires’ own. Blade can’t make sense of his vampiric nature and relentlessly strives to annihilate all vampires so that his own nature can remain unexamined.
Although the morally dubious hero is nothing new in the work of directors sophisticated or otherwise, as a del Toro trope it is worth study. He refuses any banal sense of Manichean good and evil. He resembles artists like Hitchcock and De Palma in his insistence on the moral ambiguity of the hero. In so doing, del Toro deconstructs the legitimated supremacy of the patriarchal male hero, in whom the audience presumably trusts implicitly. In this sense, it is intriguing that he makes no gendered distinction among his morally ambiguous heroes. Clearly, Mimic’s Susan bears responsibility for the creatures she helped to spawn. She is neither an idealized maternal Mary-figure nor an Eve-evil temptress. Rather, she is, like all del Toro heroes, recognizably human, flawed in the face of life and evil.
The set-piece as its own end
Some scenes in Mimic achieve the poetic, oneiric horror of the mother-meat sequence in Buñuel’s Los Olividados, or the Salvador Dalí dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. For instance, the spectral, dreamy little boy besieged by two humanlike, looming insects, mixes so many fairy tale and horror movie tones that it’s almost like its own micro-movie universe. In the most unsettling sequence, Susan waits for a train on an increasingly denuded, empty platform. Suddenly realizing she is alone save for a tall, hooded stranger—one of the Mimic insects—she races away from it down the platform. The insect splits open its human garb to reveal itself in all of its blurring, insect glory, swooping through the platform on now extended, nightmarish wings, seizing Susan as its prey, her demon lover taking her on a flight of erotic damnation.
There are other bravura moments in Mimic—think of the battle with the Male Insect at the climax, in which Susan raises a cut hand to lure it towards her and away from the boy, her stigmata a sign of female heroism; or of the alien powwow of insects converging around the doctor before he blows them up and plunges to surprising safety in the water below.
No director more eloquently employs CGI graphics than del Toro. I have never been so moved by the use of CGI as when I watched the ghostly sorrow of the little boy apparition in The Devil’s Backbone, or so thrilled as when I watch the demon lover insect taking flight in the subway. There is also a glorious moment at the climax of Blade II in which the vampire heroine, afflicted with sunlight, heroically dies limb by limb in the glare of dawn, her martyr’s death a new vampire myth.
The critical value of del Toro’s oeuvre
Del Toro’s persistent talent rescues him from critical oblivion. If we piece together moments from his films, we have an impressive body of cinematic statements. The little girl rescuing her grandfather from death in Cronos; Susan’s raised, slashed hand of defiance at the climax of Mimic; Blade’s embrace of the dying vampire woman at the end of Blade II—all of these images taken together amount to a profound and beautifully limned statement about moments of profound generosity and courage from embattled heroes in the face of evil. As a message, it’s utterly simple and awesome, like those in most myths and fairy tales. Del Toro’s work forces us to recognize that part may often be more significant than whole.
David Greven is an Assistant Professor of English at Connecticut College. He specializes in 19th century American literature and film. His book Men Beyond Desire: Manhood, Sex, and Violation in American Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) examines the recurrent figure of the isolate, emotionally and sexually unavailable male in Classic American literature. His work on literature has appeared in journals such as American Quarterly, Genders and The Nathaniel Hawthorne Review. Greven has written articles on film and television for such journals as Cineaste, Cineaction, Reel Food, Action Chicks and Reading Sex and the City. Among his passions are Milton, Hawthorne, Poe, Hitchcock, Bette Davis, Classic Star Trek, and De Palma.