Master of the Macabre – Guillermo del Toro
Going to see Guillermo del Toro’s Home with Monsters at the AGO in Toronto last week was way out of my comfort zone. It was simply out of character. I have this firm belief that there is not need to bring evil into your life. There is enough of this in the real world without having to pay for a movie, read a book or see images which will scared out of your mind. You will never see me watch a horror movie or encourage my children to do this (although I won’t forbid it). It is a personal philosophy that I subscribe to since I was fairly young. No Friday the 13th, Saw, The Ring or Children of the Corn movies in my life. I have seen a few cult classics but I tend to stay away from anything within the occult or evil. Maybe seeing Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby were not the best choices when I was young but I know now this is not the genre for me. I’ve never enjoyed House of Horrors or anything macabre in amusement parks either. Reading a Stephen King novel… Never.Going.To.Happen.
So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto over the holidays to see the Guillermo del Toro At Home with Monsters exhibit. Closing on January 7, 2018 I need to tell you about it because it is fascinating. First and foremost, let me be clear, in my opinion this is not an exhibit for young children. There were some school aged children there and I could see they were impacted by what they saw. This is a macabre show with life-size monsters, ghouls and ghastly imagery. It took me a few days to process what I was looking at and trying to understand the need to have these things in my psyche. There will be images that will haunt you in your dreams (I promise you) but as human nature is, people are fascinated by this!
The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth
Where this becomes palatable is when you listen to the audio tour (that I suggest you do before going) in order to understand his obsession with the macabre. Del Toro is a master filmmaker who lets us into Bleak House, his House of Horrors (or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as he calls it). It is two houses with over 11,000 square feet, where Guillermo del Toro writes, draws, paints and designs sets, creatures and effects for his movies. The objects which surround him are paintings, oddities (real or imagined), sculptures, books, comic books and creatures that he and others have created for his projects. One his most famous creations is the Pale Man from his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. It is terrifying. He describes it as an ogre (the eater of children) with a face without eyes (displaced because he is “ blind to anything but a brutal and perverse appetite”). In his audio tour del Toro explains how the first prototype presented to him was just not scary enough. He needed to get rid of the eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul and displacing them , del Toro states, creates and immediate monstrosity. The effect is chilling as you walk into the exhibition, The Pale Man is elevated on a platform, and his hand is almost at eye level with the large bloodshot eye at the center. It commands you to stop and gaze into evil incarnate while threatening to grab you and drag you away. I was stunned to find out that he considers this the scariest sequence he has ever shot!
Del Toro was heavily influenced by magic and the occult as a child. He saw his first corpse lying by the side of the road without a head by age four. At eleven he witnessed a shooting and later, the remains of mutilated bodies from a car crash. It is amazing that this man has channelled this into art instead of tragedy. Of Mexican origin the influence of the Catholic church, his mother and his grandmother are profound. The figure of La Catrina (an image often associated with the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead), is part of the folklore and legend of the mother. She is charged with such symbolic power in many of del Toro’s female monsters.
How do his most memorable characters begin? In dreams. Whether it is the Mother Ghost in Crimson’s Peak and or the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth these creatures were part of actual dreams. Del Toro recounts how his mother was visited by his grandmother’s ghost and how she heard the creak of the springs on the bed and smelled her perfume during the visitation.
La Muerta from Book of Life
A much ‘cuter’ version of La Catrina is the miniature of La Muerte from the 2014 The Book of Life. It is an animated film, a love story set in the Mexican holiday De los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The film frames death as a natural, celebratory process in life’s journey. It is the bridge that connects the living with our ancestors. Although this animated movie was not a huge success they say that the recent release of Disney’s Coco is a riff of The Book of Life.
It is interesting to note that del Toro believes that Walt Disney was a master in his own write but many of his animated films were based in darkness. The death of Bambi’s mom, the boys turning into donkeys in Pinocchio are a few examples he mentioned.
The Terrifying Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth
The terrifying Faun was a compilation of a re-occurring dream of a goat monster which appeared from behind his grandmother’s armoire. A victim of lucid dreams and night terrors, he prayed that if the monsters would just go away, he would live with them forever. As a filmmaker he has recreated them and kept them alive so that they haunt others in their dreams. By creating these atrocities, he kept his promise. I am not sure if this terrified me more than The Pale Man but I found it so much more disturbing with the elongated fingers, pale green complexion and huffed legs. As he describes the monster morphing into a younger, kinder creature in the movie, I questioned whether I would have the courage to finally see Pan’s Labyrinth. Would I be able to see any of his films?
I’m not sure I can. Even now when I know the concept behind the mask and facade. The smoke and mirrors. The lifeless resin figures.
The Rain Room with Edgar Allan Poe
Be sure and drop by the Rain Room and have a seat by Edgar Allan Poe. Re-created at the AGO, this room has an ongoing rainstorm playing in the window along with billowing tree shadows. It is where del Toro goes to create. I must admit, if you are hesitant to go, listening to the audio tour and reading the accompanying boards throughout the exhibit, will help you understand how such creatures come to life. You may already be a fan of the occult, horror films or be intrigued by the darker side of life. If so, you should make a trip to the AGO in Toronto and take this exhibit in.
Del Toro told his children in life you have choices. What choices you make will reflect who you are. “Your last act defines who you are… If you are a wonderful citizen for all of your life but the last thing you do is murder three people, you will always be remembered as a murder”. I wonder, what will Guillermo del Toro be defined as? Filmmaker extraordinaire or perpetual creator of nightmares and bad dreams?