Alchemists of all sorts populate the world of Guillermo del Toro. His films are filled with figures who strive to transform base materials into precious items, unearth ancient secrets, and challenge the fundamental laws of nature. In Cronos (1997), 14th-century mystic Umberto Fulcanelli creates a device that offers eternal life—with slight vampiristic side effects. In Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Ophelia places a mandrake root in a bowl of milk to ease her stepmother’s illness. In Crimson Peak (2015), Thomas Sharpe constructs an excavation machine to draw energy from the clay of the earth. In del Toro’s films, alchemy functions as a magical tool. It symbolizes the human drive to change the ordinary into something fantastical.
Dr. Keith McDonald and Roger Clark investigate alchemy and other motifs throughout del Toro’s films in their book, Guillermo del Toro: Film as Alchemic Art (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014). They offer a close reading of the director’s films while tracing his artistic influences and highlighting major and minor themes within his work. Their book argues that Guillermo del Toro himself is an alchemist through his constant combining and reworking of normally fixed genres. McDonald and Clark expand on this by pointing to his frequent blending of high and low art to conjure his unique films.
What initially drew you to del Toro’s work and inspired you to approach his films within a scholarly, critical framework?
Keith McDonald: Roger and I used to work together at the English department in our university and we were teaching children’s literature. We looked at Pan’s Labyrinth as an example of a film that uses children’s literature as a jumping-off point for an experiment in adult fairytale. We wrote a paper on that, which scratched the surface slightly on the complexity of the work. We were bitten by a bug, really,
Roger Clark: The Cronos bug!
KM: We went down the rabbit hole, from which we haven’t really returned. We noticed that, for a filmmaker who had been prolific over the last 10 years, there wasn’t a lot of material out there on del Toro. We thought that this was a good time in his career to take the temperature of where he is and where he is going.
RC: I was a children’s literature specialist, with a major interest in Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature. I was fascinated by Pan’s Labyrinth, especially by the way del Toro transformed and used his source materials in ways that were highly original and quite extraordinary, with references to Arthur Rackham, Lewis Carroll, and a range of other Victorian and Edwardian writers. I hadn’t seen anything like it before.
There is a scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where Ophelia’s stepfather, a captain in Franco’s army, captures a rebel fighter and repeatedly beats in his face. The tone of the film shifts violently, from fairy tale to gruesome horror. Though the movie is seen through the eyes of a child, its use of violence is brutal and deeply disturbing.
KM: Yeah, I remember that a lot of people in England brought their children to see Pan’s Labyrinth because they thought it was a fairy tale. They were horrified! People left the cinema! Del Toro’s subversive violence is quite important; there is no irony to it. There is a similar scene at the beginning of Crimson Peak. Someone is dispensed with in an incredible quick burst of violence. This is very different from how a director like Quentin Tarantino uses violence—he seduces you and his films are steeped in irony. With del Toro’s work, we see the real monster, the monstrous. It is serious and it takes many forms.
In Guillermo del Toro: Film as Alchemic Art, you write that del Toro radically reworks the structures and modes of fairy tale narratives. Can we consider his films modern fairy tales? Are they fairy tales for adults?
KM: Del Toro uses fairy tales in a way that is totally legitimate for the 21st century. He uses fairy tale structure to talk about deeply serious, political events, like civil wars and the death of children. They seem incongruous but fairy tales have a darkness to them.
RC: We underestimate fairy tales. We tend to think of them as Disneyfied. But fairy tales often have a dark undercurrent, a subterranean world, which del Toro taps into and mines effectively.Though fairy tales are traditionally stories told to children, they often include large amounts of casual violence: poisonous apples, wicked stepparents, attempts of cannibalism of children…This representation of children and childhood is very important to del Toro. The children in del Toro’s films are central to his vision, yet they are never involved in a sentimentalized way.
In your book you write that del Toro uses perspectives from the point of view of a child to explore trauma, especially the effects and ravages of war on a people. How do del Toro’s films approach trauma, specifically historical and political trauma?
KM: Del Toro uses children as witnesses. Children in his films can see things without political agenda; they are intelligent yet ideologically free.
RC: Children are often the victims of ideology.
KM: Ophelia is turning on the wheel of history, abandoned and left in the hands of two monsters: Vidal, her stepfather, and the Pale Man. Her perspective brings us to a point of reference.
RC: In stories, we often constructed children as passive. But in del Toro’s films, they are active seekers, and they have their own agency.
Early in your book, you compare del Toro with Steven Spielberg. You state that they mine the same sources and drink from the same well, with very different outcomes. What makes these two master directors similar and what makes them distinct?
KM: Sentimentality is the key. Steven Spielberg is a master filmmaker who is driven by and drawn to sentimentality. His child characters often go through trauma and often suffer, but they come out of it having grown, becoming better people who are more equipped. This is different from del Toro’s films, which have a lack of sentimentality, especially surrounding children and childhood. Most of the children in his films are abandoned and don’t have families to go back to, where as Spielberg's children, even if they are separated from their families, return. I think del Toro’s attracted to the power of dysfunctionality.
RC: In Crimson Peak, the two central figures are orphaned. Edith Cushing loses her father, who is killed early in the film. The notion of the family as unit is problematic in del Toro’s films. Families are constructed differently. If you think of the children in the orphanage in The Devil’s Backbone (2001), the father figure is the orphanage doctor. The traditional family is missing. Del Toro once said in an interview that it is wrong to show children surviving in fantastic circumstances. The children in Jurassic Park would’ve been eaten by the Tyrannosaurus Rex! In del Toro’s films, children die. It's shocking. We tend to expect children to survive to the last frame.
In Guillermo del Toro: Film as Alchemic Art, you describe his blending and upending genre norms and tropes as a process of filmic chemistry and alchemic originality. In what way is del Toro an alchemist?
KM: An alchemist tries to create something beautiful out of base material. He is a cook, mixing and using elemental things to create a new incarnation. Del Toro takes things that others might think are base or lowly—the cover of a science fiction book from the seventies, a dusty old latex model from universal studios—and sees the value in them; he sees them as useful. He mixes high and low art and comes up with something uniquely his own. I’ve rarely seen any filmmaker who has done that in such a dedicated way as del Toro.
There is a scene in Hellboy II where Hellboy and his companions go down to a subterranean “troll market.” I feel that each creature shown in this scene represents a part of del Toro’s alchemic process: the weird, the wonderful, the slimy, the smelly, the beautiful, and the angelic, all mixed together in a type of ecology or a swirling cosmos.
RC: If you look at the type of influences that del Toro acknowledges, you have everything from Francisco Goya to comic books. His films combine and meld these influences into a unified aesthetic whole. Alchemy is about transformation, and what del Toro does in his films is taking existing genres and subverting and transforming them.
Keith McDonald holds a PhD from Birkbeck College, University of London, UK, and is the head of programme for media, film studies and mass communications at York St John University, UK. His research interest include popular culture, cult cinema, and digital media. Roger Clark taught literature and film in UK universities for over 30 years and has published on contemporary fiction and film. He was senior lecturer in literature studies at York St John University, UK, where he is currently honorary research fellow in the faculty of arts. Visit Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters through November 27, 2016, and watch Pacific Rim on November 12 and Crimson Peak on November 18, both at LACMA's Bing Theater.