by Mike Oliveri
Mike Oliveri is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the The Pack series of novels from Evileye Books. He has written both comics and prose in the horror and thriller genres, and he has published a number of novels, novellas and short stories. Mike is a martial artist, motorcyclist, cigar aficionado, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more about Mike at mikeoliveri.com or follow him on Twitter at @MikeOliveri.
I sat down to watch Pan’s Labyrinth recently, and it occurred to me the single biggest thing that sets Guillermo del Toro apart from his peers is respect. The more I thought about it, the more I started to see it: he has respect for his creations, he has respect for his craft, and most of all, he has respect for his fans. Sleepless nights and losing 45 pounds of body weight while making a film just doesn’t happen to someone who doesn’t give a shit about their work or the people who choose to enjoy it.
With Pan’s Labyrinth, we have a curious hybrid of horror and fantasy, the hallmark of a classic fairy tale versus the shiny, happy, Disney-fied fairy tales we’re accustomed to seeing today. A lesser talent may have populated this tale with cookie-cutter archetypes and been done with it, but we see fully realized characters throughout del Toro’s vision. Ofelia and her mother wrestle over their family situation. Vidal is the hero of his own story, as every good villain should be. Mercedes regrets her own weakness. The doctor knows his days are numbered, but helps the guerillas anyway. Even the Faun is no simple plot device, as we see both his joy and pain in his interactions with Ofelia.
Consider, too, the loving way in which these characters are rendered. The Faun’s presentation is simply gorgeous. The blending of practical effects, animatronics, and CGI is seamless, as if del Toro had conjured up the real thing in front of the cameras. The Pale Man’s makeup is simple yet elegant, and doesn’t fail to bring the creepy from the first moment he appears on screen. Either of them could have been computer-generated from start to finish and saved a lot of time and money, but del Toro chose to present them in the best way possible.
By extension, this demonstrates del Toro’s respect for the fans. Most of us roll our eyes anymore at CGI monsters and the frenetic motion, shadows & darkness, and shaky camera work strategically placed to hide their imperfections. In Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro gives us a good, long look at each monster so we can take in the lavish detail.
And his handling of the story! He could have spoon-fed us the Pale Man’s background through dialog or narration, effectively telling us we need to be scared of this bizarre creature rather than showing us. del Toro Instead plants seeds: the Faun’s fear; the frescoes; the pile of shoes. He trusts us to figure it out, and he doesn’t waste time filling in back story to kill the mystery. Similarly, the whole movie is open to fan interpretation: is this all a fairy tale reality, or is it escapist fantasy in Ofelia’s head?
Consider, then, the two ways the ending could be interpreted. del Toro leaves us to choose the ending we prefer: heartbreak or happiness. Yet both are satisfying, and beautiful in their own way. This is del Toro’s respect for horror. For dread. For emotion. He understands the audience must feel something if he’s to be successful, or we’re left with cheap popcorn entertainment which leaves us the moment we leave the theater.
This respect carries over to his handling of other creators’ work. It still shocks me Hellboy made it through the Hollywood process unscathed. Would a rookie director have managed to pitch a script featuring a demon summoned by Nazis, his fishman sidekick, and his human pyrotechnic love interest battling a sorcerer and his clockwork Nazi henchman? Come on. del Toro’s respect earned him the studio’s trust, and his respect for the work kept it true to the original Mike Mignola creation.
More recently he delivered Pacific Rim. Say what you will about the screenplay, but his devotion to the simple matter of giant monsters versus giant robots—kaiju versus mecha—is staggering. There is a ton of detail and production work behind each kaiju and mecha, and most of it didn’t make it to the screen. Yet, all that effort behind the scenes made what we got to see on-screen all the more detailed and incredible.
Did del Toro invent the kaiju tale? Far from it. But he showed it tremendous respect, and by extension, showed great respect for the fans of the genre. He put his own stamp on it without reinventing it, or watering it down for the fickle American audience. Contrast del Toro’s treatment of kaiju with the ‘98 Godzilla abomination and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
Personally, I’d love to see del Toro handle bringing Clive Barker’s work to screen, be it The Thief of Always, The Great and Secret Show, or my personal favorite, Imajica. Barker’s and del Toro’s visions of horror and love for monsters are similar, and it would take del Toro’s respect to make them happen properly. However, that’s probably a topic for another article.
One last point about del Toro’s respect for his craft. Take a look at his IMDB page (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0868219/). Go ahead, I’ll be here when you get back. Good, now consider the number of jobs he’s had. Not the titles and films, but the number of roles he’s had in the production process. Yes, there’s the predictable writer, director, and producer credits, but also second unit director, art director, makeup, and editorial. He even did fight choreography for Hellboy.
Sure, this could be misinterpreted as the mark of a control freak, but the stories surrounding del Toro as a person indicate otherwise. I think this is the sign of a man who’s learned his craft from start to finish. He honestly cares for his work and what he presents to his audience, and he has a great respect for the history and craft of filmmaking.
If you ask me, it’s a lesson we could all take to our own crafts.