A Man and His Monsters: The Creatures of Guillermo del Toro
“… to all the monsters in my nursery: May you never leave me alone.”
― Guillermo Del Toro,
The monster movie is a Hollywood staple. From Nosferatu in 1922 to Universal’s pantheon of classics like Dracula and Frankenstein; to the body horror of The Thing and Alien; to more contemporary takes like Cloverfield and The Host, monsters have fascinated audiences since the dawn of film. However, one man, in particular, has shaped the modern monster more than any other: Guillermo del Toro.
Del Toro’s fascination with monsters came at an early age. Growing up in Mexico, he picked up a copy of cult magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland at a supermarket, and was instantly hooked (he credits his love of the book with helping him become bilingual). That appreciation eventually led to his first short film, made as a student in high school. He would go on to find a special effects company before launching into the film world at large with his first feature, Cronos (1993).
“[Monsters] are symbols of great power,” says del Toro in an interview with Big Think. “Obviously, monsters are living, breathing metaphors.” In his work, monsters are often dark reflections of humanity. Through the lens of horror he examines the human condition, exploring themes like hopes and fears, life and death, and freedom versus authority. Over his career, del Toro has created a menagerie of creatures—some utterly horrifying, some eerily beautiful.
The Judas Breed – Mimic
Del Toro’s first studio feature, released in 1997, centers on scientists who work to eradicate a disease carried by cockroaches in Manhattan. They engineer a new species dubbed the Judas Breed, designed to eradicate the insects and then die off themselves. The experiment works, but the brood persists. Instead of the planned extinction, the species proves hyper-adaptive and evolves to consume a new prey: man. Marred by production issues and studio interference, del Toro calls Mimic his “imperfect child.”
The gargantuan insects of Mimic are del Toro’s first major monsters. Though rooted in the giant insect trope of B-horror movies, they have less in common with Them!, and more with The Fly. The Judas Breed evokes themes akin to Frankenstein—playing God, man’s inhumanity toward man, and man against nature. Monstrous indeed, they don’t just consume, they intend to replace. Although hindered by dated CGI, Mimic boasts an unsettling design that would only be the tip of the iceberg for del Toro’s creations.
Santi – The Devil’s Backbone
“History is ultimately an inventory of ghosts,” del Toro says of The Devil’s Backbone. Set in the final days of Spanish Civil War, the film centers on a young orphan named Carlos. He arrives at an orphanage (with an undetonated bomb buried square in the middle of the courtyard). As he learns the circuitous workings of the school, he hears stories of a dead boy that haunts the grounds.
Santi, the ghost, is one of del Toro’s most striking designs. Frail and pallid, Santi is a cruel reminder of the orphanage’s secrets. Blood pours from a ghastly wound on his forehead—not a spray or a cascade, but a cloud, as if perpetually drowning in a pool of water. Carlos stares into him like a mirror when they first meet. It’s a haunting image, not just due to Santi’s otherworldly nature, but because of his tragically stolen youth.
Reapers – Blade II
In Blade II, the sequel to Marvel’s first theatrical foray since the disastrous Howard the Duck, returned the vampire to its ghoulish, inhuman roots. The film follows pseudo-superhero and vampire hunter, known as Blade, as he works to eradicate the Reaper virus; which transforms its host into a particularly gruesome variety of vampire. The film was a box office success and helped propel the superhero genre into the billion dollar behemoth it is today.
A stark contrast to Anne Rice’s preening, effete aristocrats, the vampires of Blade II are more akin to Count Orlok of Nosferatu—until they open their mouths. These creatures’ jaws bloom like bloody flowers, lined with rows of teeth that surround an equally toothsome lamprey-like tongue. Elements of the design would carry over to the vampires of del Toro’s The Strain series, notably their pale, hairless skin and a parasitic tongue.
The Faun – Pan’s Labyrinth
One of del Toro’s most celebrated films, Pan’s Labyrinth, features some of his most fascinating creations. Here he returns to Spain, and continues to explore themes from The Devil’s Backbone. This time from the perspective of Ofelia, a young girl who falls into a fairy tale. Though thematically the most monstrous character is Ofelia’s stepfather, the literal monsters of Pan’s Labyrinth are among the most distinct and imaginative of del Toro’s oeuvre.
Ofelia befriends the Faun, half-man/half-goat, a figure rooted in the satyrs of Greek myth (though despite the film’s English title, is not actually Pan himself). The Faun straddles the line between friend and foe; his motives are just as mysterious as his appearance. Inexorably tied to the forest, the Faun shares elements with the trees—his fingers curl like gnarled bark, patches of moss cover him like fur, and twisting vines wrap his body. Actor and frequent collaborator, Doug Jones (he and del Toro first worked together on Mimic), brings the character to life in all its eerie glory.
The Pale Man – Pan’s Labyrinth
Also portrayed by Jones, the Pale Man is easily one del Toro’s most memorable monsters. With its sagging skin and unnerving physique, the Pale Man casts a lurid image. However, it’s the eyes that make the creature unforgettable—they’re placed in the palm of its hands. When the Pale Man rouses and takes its first wheezing breath, a sense of dread fills the scene. Though not as integral to the story of Pan’s Labyrinth as the Faun, the Pale Man remains one of the film’s most iconic characters.
The Angel of Death – Hellboy II
Del Toro’s Hellboy movies are crawling with ingenious designs, including the clockwork assassin Karl Kroenen, the ravenous yet adorable Tooth Fairies, and a cartographer with a cathedral for a head. Yet, none are as intriguing or distinct as Hellboy II’s Angel of Death.
The Angel (again, Jones), gaunt and skeletal, towers over Hellboy and company when they meet. Similar to the Pale Man, the Angel’s eyes are her most iconic feature. When she lifts her veil, she reveals only craggy stone—and yellow eyes open across her great black wings. Though the arbiter of life and death, the Angel is oddly nurturing, almost maternal in nature.
Leatherback – Pacific Rim
A love letter to monsters like Godzilla and Gamera, del Toro’s massive mecha movie Pacific Rim is arguably del Toro’s most straightforward film. In spite of that, it’s by design: del Toro says that simplicity is “a quality that allows me to keep my 12-year-old self in command of what the movie needs to do, which is to provoke awe and love for these creatures and robots.” Still, there’s a certain poetry to the way the film’s gargantuan robots and monstrous invaders fight and move. Each has a design that separates it from the rest, keeping them diverse and offbeat.
Of all the movie’s, Kaiju, the colossal beast dubbed “Leatherback,” ranks among its most distinctive. Though not the biggest or baddest of the film’s creatures, Leatherback is still imposing and memorable. A reptilian spin on the silverback gorilla, it combines Godzilla with King Kong, yet remains its own; details like a mane of writhing tentacles and an exposed spinal column set it apart from the pack.
The Asset – The Shape of Water
Del Toro’s latest is a critical darling and an award magnet that looks to be a serious contender for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award. Inspired heavily by Creature From the Black Lagoon and Beauty and the Beast, the film’s unconventional love story has captured audiences, due in no small part to the design of “the Asset.”
The Asset isn’t del Toro’s first alluring amphibian—that would be Abe Sapien of Hellboy. Nonetheless, while Abe is elegant and fragile, the Asset is rough and intimidating. Yet for all the spines and scales, the Asset still echoes a human being. It’s a delicate balancing act: how do you make an inhuman monster a romantic leading man? Del Toro and his team find a way, creating one of his most memorable monsters yet. Under the skin is once again Doug Jones, who gives a soul to what could have easily been an entirely CGI creation.
With his collection of creatures, Guillermo del Toro’s made a modern mythology. At a glance, these monsters might serve merely to shock or to frighten, but there’s a depth and design to each one of them. Though bestial and vile, the Judas Breed and the Reapers represent the fear of nature growing beyond our control. The Faun and the Asset are gatekeepers to another, more fantastic world. The Angel of Death, eternal, is always watching, and the ghost Santi is regret made manifest. Horror and fantasy speak to our hopes and fears. “We have to admit and enshrine the fact that this is a genre that has given us some of the most indelible images in the history of cinema,” says del Toro. “To say, the road to monsters is deeply ingrained in us and deeply revealing of us.”