Guillermo del Toro and the Tradition of the Fantastic, or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Del Toro

Orrin Greyby Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a writer, editor, amateur film scholar, and monster expert who was born on the night before Halloween. He’s the author of Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings and the co-editor of Fungi, an anthology of weird fungal fiction. His favorite Guillermo del Toro movie is probably Pacific Rim.


A few months ago, I had the honor of being one of the guests at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland. While there, I was involved in several conversations that could all have been boiled down to the question of, “Why Lovecraft?” Why are we still talking about his work, after all this time? It’s not a simple question to answer, and a full exploration of it is outside my purview here, but by the end of the weekend I had what I considered at least a partial answer: Lovecraft was a nexus point, a place at which just about all of the streams crossed. Pick any tradition in imaginative literature, trace it back far enough, and chances are you’ll pass through Lovecraft’s shadow somewhere along the way.

H.P. Lovecraft 1934

H.P. Lovecraft 1934

I was originally going to write this essay about Guillermo del Toro’s relationship with Lovecraft, but I feel like that ground has been pretty thoroughly trod over by now, so I decided on a different tack. After all, I’m now at the first-annual Del Toro Con, and the question could just as easily be asked, “Why Guillermo del Toro?” And the answers would be just as many, and just as varied, but one answer, I think, would be fundamentally the same.

Like Lovecraft, del Toro is a nexus of what has come before, and he will be a bridge to what lies beyond. Not just because of the strength of his own work, but because, like Lovecraft, he acknowledges his influences, celebrates them even, and through him, new generations of fans are introduced to writers, artists, and filmmakers they might otherwise never have known.

I’ve recommended Guillermo del Toro’s films to a lot of people over the years, and I always exhort them to listen to the commentary tracks. The commentary track on a del Toro film is better than most movies, and is invariably a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes insights and references to other creators—sometimes popular, sometimes obscure, but always intriguing.

While del Toro’s name is inextricably tied up with Lovecraft’s in the minds of many fans—he was a guest judge at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival a few years before I was there—there’s not actually much overt Lovecraft in any of his completed films, with the exception of Hellboy, which managed to put ancient interstellar god-monsters—as filtered through the imagination of Mike Mignola—into the mainstream in a way that few movies ever had before. By comparison, the specters of authors like Blackwood, Machen, and maybe especially Dunsany—several of Lovecraft’s own forebears in the realm of the weird tale—all loom large in much of del Toro’s filmography. Hellboy 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth both owe significant debts to Dunsany,even going so far as to borrow the name of Hellboy 2‘s ancient city, Bethmoora. Hellboy 2 named an auction house after Blackwood, while Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark borrowed his name for both the film’s central house and the naturalist who owned it, while also integrating Machen into the actual plot.

Lovecraft Statue at Bleak House

Lovecraft Statue at Bleak House

Guillermo del Toro is a true Renaissance man, and while he’s obviously got more than a little Lovecraft in his DNA—he’s an avowed fan, after all, whose dream project is to direct a big-screen adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and there’s a statue of the Old Gent standing in the library of del Toro’s famous Bleak House—he also samples from many of the same sources from which Lovecraft himself drew, as well as comic books, kaiju films, and other traditions that have evolved since.

But del Toro isn’t content merely to borrow from what came before. Instead he synthesizes, creates from it something headier than the sum of its parts, but still with the lingering taste of the familiar. While del Toro’s smaller and more personal Spanish-language films are often broken out from his more blockbuster-friendly Hollywood fare, there’s clearly a thread running through them all. Something that binds them together, whether they’re an intimate story about survival and magic during the Spanish civil war, or an apocalyptic epic of giant robots duking it out with equally giant monsters. In all of his films, the same care and craft can be found, but also something else: An acknowledgment of tradition, marching back to Lovecraft and beyond, but also an unwillingness to be hemmed in or defined by it.

At the end of the day, a del Toro movie is always a del Toro movie, but also something more. A key to a dusty attic or a hidden basement full of forgotten wonders, as rich and deep as our own imaginations. A nexus of old traditions, and also a new beginning. That’s a part of what we’re talking about when we talk about del Toro, and part of why we’ll be talking about his films for a long time to come.

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