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guillermo del toro

934No one is surprised that I’m a fan of Guillermo del Toro. Even when I don’t like his movies, they’re always full of plenty of creative nutrients for me to absorb and convert into something of my own, and his commentary tracks are, invariably, some of the best in the business, and always worth the price of the movie by themselves. Del Toro and Mignola are two influences that have been with me pretty much throughout my writing career, and both have been huge inspirations for me, not least in how they, themselves, proudly display their own influences and inspirations in their work.

So, of course, I’ve always been intrigued by GDT’s bizarre personal museum Bleak House, and when the opportunity came to get a tour of at least part of it in the form of the At Home With Monsters exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of of Art, I jumped at it. Along with some other local writing friends and colleagues, we piled into a couple of cars and made the seven-and-a-half hour drive up to Minneapolis, just long enough to see the exhibit and head home, pretty much.

It’s probably good that we didn’t budget anything else to do while we were there, because I could have spent all day inside the At Home With Monsters. Walking around the exhibit was a lot like walking around a physical projection of the inside of my own head. The overlap between GDT’s obsessions and my own may be less pronounced than mine and Mignola’s, but there’s certainly still plenty of overlap there, and I was overjoyed to find comics that I owned on the walls of comic books that the collection held.

949More than anything, it felt like a creative space, like a direct conduit between inspiration and generation. Highlights included, well, most of the place, really, but perhaps the most exciting was seeing the actual original sketches of one of Mike Mignola’s original designs for the Sammael creature in the first Hellboy movie, which has always been one of my favorite monster designs. I had seen most of the sketches before, but as is always the case with art, seeing it in person was a world of difference from seeing even a high-quality reproduction.

Speaking of that, there were a couple of original paintings there by Zdzislaw Beksinski, including one (unfortunately, I didn’t get the title) that was so jaw-dropping to see in person that I practically had to reach out and touch it to reassure myself that it wasn’t three dimensional. (I didn’t touch it, because the signs specifically asked me not to, but the urge was certainly there.)

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So here’s my last year-in-review-type-post for 2013, and my attempt at a second annual unofficial Best Movie Monster of the Year post (here’s last year’s). It’ll also be the second year in a row (out of two!) that I gave the award to a whole movie, rather than any one particular monster. So I’m obviously good at this, is what I’m saying.

Normally I’d try to play coy, and save the announcements for the end of the post, but really, nobody who’s been paying attention is going to be surprised about this year’s winner, so I may as well go ahead and say it. The winner by a margin so substantial that all other movies may as well be competing in a different category altogether: Pacific Rim

Yeah, shock, nobody is surprised. First of all, any year with a Guillermo del Toro movie in the running, the competition had better be pretty fierce for anything else to have a chance. And Pacific Rim is maybe del Toro’s monsteriest movie, a lover letter to kaiju films and giant robots that is every bit as inspired and meticulous as the best of his other films, though it comes from a much more bombastic portion of his vast and monster-loving heart.

I’ve already talked about why Pacific Rim was a great movie, and the kaiju themselves are a big piece of that particular puzzle. Wonderfully designed, and beautifully executed, they are some of the most awesome (in every sense of the word) and lovely monsters ever put on film. The fact that del Toro carefully designed them to move with the feel of a man in a suit, while also feeling completely real, just makes them all the better. But the biggest win for me is the gorgeous use of bioluminescence, making for some unexpectedly striking moments in an always striking film.

As has been the case for a few years now, the movie monster landscape in 2013 was dominated by movies that weren’t actually monster movies. These days the vast majority of blockbuster fare contains some manner of (more or less inspired) creature, while horror films tend to trade in more mundane threats. 2013 saw at least one truly phenomenal horror film, in the form of James Wan’s The Conjuring, but it didn’t really have much that could be called a monster, just ghosts and a very creepy doll (naturally).

Monsters made appearances in just about every movie with a sizable budget, many of which I’ve yet to see. From the second installment of the (inexplicable) Hobbit trilogy to the Thor sequel to the execrable Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, there were no shortage of creatures at the multiplexes this year. Surprisingly, some of the better monsters I saw were actually in the raunchy comedy This is the End, which featured demons that, while looking like bosses from Darksiders, still had enough character to rise above the majority of the blockbuster creatures thrown our way.

But Pacific Rim‘s biggest competition in the monster category ultimately came from the corner of a little film called Frankenstein’s Army, which deserves an honorary trophy for the fact that its inspired array of spookhouse creatures were all accomplished using practical effects. And if the movie itself serves mostly as a showcase for Nazi Frankenstein’s monsters complete with propeller heads and saw arms, well, there are certainly worse things to be.

Here’s the thing: There’s no way that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark could have been as good as I hoped it would be. I sort of hoped it would be the best movie ever. I mean, the haunted house genre might be my favorite genre, and you know what’s better than that? A house haunted by monsters. Add in del Toro’s name, the chance to see Troy Nixey’s directing chops, and the fact that it got an R rating for being too scary, and you’ve got expectations that cannot realistically be met.

So was it everything I’d hoped? No, not really. Was it everything I should’ve reasonably hoped? Yeah, or close enough. I liked it a lot, and, if I’d stumbled upon it without any expectations to weigh it down, if it’d been some surprise thing that I came across somehow without prior knowledge, I’d probably have loved it.

The first question of course is, “Was it really that scary?” And, no, I didn’t think so. Probably the most awful thing in the whole movie for me happens before the opening credits. But it was pretty creepy, and it definitely deserved its R-rating, and, honestly, I don’t see how it could’ve been rated anything else, not realistically, even though it’s a much more old school creepy dark house movie, rather than a gore film, and its body count is pretty much non-existent. It’s not that kind of movie.

It does have a lot in common with del Toro’s other films. (And he does love evil tooth fairies. This is the third time he’s used them, including a short story he did for the second Hellboy short story collection Odder Jobs, along with the same co-writer who worked with him on this movie.) Mainly, though, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a more straight-up horror movie than anything else del Toro’s ever done. As such, it’s probably a closer sibling to The Orphanage, which del Toro also produced, and while it’s not as good as The Orphanage it has the advantage of monsters.

And the monsters are pretty cool. They’re just spidery and awful enough, and the film does a good job of making them a credible threat, even though they’re so tiny.

The house was amazing, too. While it never quite felt like it was a character in the story, like it really came alive the way the best haunted houses sometimes do, it was beautifully designed, with wonderful carvings and doors and paintings, and some of that soft golden lighting that you see in the artwork from the film that really plays nicely against the dark and the shadows.

There’s really not much wrong with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. It’s keeping it simple, it doesn’t have a lot of lofty goals, just wants to be a scary movie about an old, dark house full of awful little monsters. It does that.

The best part, though, about the whole experience for me. Better than the movie. Better, really, than the movie probably could have been, was that I got to sit in a theatre and watch a completely straight-faced, Hollywood horror movie make direct references to Blackwood and Machen. That’s the good stuff, right there.

This is ancient news by now, but Guillermo del Toro is off The Hobbit. As an avowed del Toro fan (though we don’t talk about Hellboy 2), I think this is good news. The Hobbit was a stalled project, at best, that was guaranteed to eat up several more years of his time, and I’d just as soon see him move on to other things. If The Hobbit ever does finally go before cameras (there’s rumors of David Yates and possibly even Sam Raimi taking over the vacated director’s chair) I’ll be eagerly looking for those parts that are left over from del Toro and Mike Mignola’s involvement.

For del Toro fans, the speculation over what project he’ll be doing next began immediately. There are a lot of possibilities, but there won’t be any definitive answers until the end of July. Like a lot of people, I’m personally hoping for At the Mountains of Madness, though I wouldn’t mind a bit if we got del Toro’s version of Frankenstein instead. Really, though, del Toro being loose on the cinematic world again after a couple of years tied down to pre-production on The Hobbit can pretty much only be good news for fans of weird and awesome cinema, no matter what project he ends up on.

Mostly, this whole post was just an excuse to link to these pictures from At the Mountains of Madness, via Golden Age Comic Book Stories.