8. Mimic (1997)
It’s not entirely fair to put del Toro’s most contested and troubled production on the bottom of the list, but, while Mimic does have some creepy atmosphere and a thoroughly unique monster design, it’s also a pretty bog-standard ’90s horror movie that wasn’t too dissimilar from something like The Relic or Phantoms. It supposes that there is a giant genetically-enhanced insect that has evolved a short period of time to be able to look like a person (sort of) when its wings are folded, to blend into its surroundings. Now, it’s up to the scientist who created them, and some other people only moderately involved, to go into the sewers of New York City to find and destroy these things. I haven’t watched del Toro’s director’s cut, but I’d imagine it has to be better than the Miramax/Dimension cut we currently have. Don’t mess with visionaries, people; they know what they’re doing.
5. Cronos (1993)
Del Toro’s first feature is also one of my favorites. It’s his first foray into vampirism, but with a truly unique and del Toro-y tinge. It’s not about garlic and wooden stakes; Cronos depicts vampirism as drug addiction through mechanical means. An old man (Federico Luppi) finds a centuries-old device that looks like a scarab and when wound up (it’s all clockwork and whatnot), it attaches itself to his hand. The insectoid creature inside feasts on his blood, at first making him younger and more virile, but soon leaving him a junkie in need of a fix, even going so far as to lick blood droplets off a bathroom floor. To make matters worse, the device is being sought by a nearly-dead crime boss and his son (Ron Perlman) who threaten the man’s granddaughter. The movie becomes a sweet sort of bonding movie between the girl and the old man which presupposes the other Spanish-language films he’d go on to make.
2. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
This film should have won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2007, but it was robbed. Still, just to get nominated for this masterful achievement proves its magic. What del Toro does the very best, I believe, are these historically-set dark fantasy films in which children have to grow up very fast surrounded by harsh times and corrupt and petty adults. This one follows a young girl in Spain during the second World War, who is the stepdaughter of a sadistic and cruel army officer, begins to escape into a fantasy world at the urging of a Faun, played by del Toro staple Doug Jones. He has her go on many quests, including retrieve something from a giant bullfrog, enter the dining hall of the terrifying Pale Man, and generally get into mischief and danger. Whether or not these things actually happen or if they’re just in her imagination is irrelevant; children need an escape, especially when their lives are surrounded by so much unpleasantness.
1. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
And my favorite del Toro film is also perhaps his simplest. A boy during the Spanish Civil War comes to live at a home for boys in the middle of the desert, in the courtyard of which there is a massive, unexploded bomb. In the creepy old house, he begins to see a glimpse of a ghost of a young boy. The ghost’s intentions are not known at first, but slowly, the boy learns many secrets about the house and its past. The grown ups in the film have their own sets of problems, including the elderly professor (Federico Luppi again) who is impotent and in love with the home’s one-legged matriarch, but she’s been having an affair with the handsome young Franco-supporting deliveryman who is secretly only sleeping with the woman to get at a fortune hidden somewhere on the grounds. It’s a mystery story, and a ghost story, and a coming-of-age story, and it’s done with del Toro’s typical sense of narrative and scene construction. That the whole thing has a dusty brown color palate doesn’t lessen the ghostliness of the horror elements. It’s a movie I love and can return to over and over again.
The night that Mary Shelley later described as the moment she came up with the idea for Frankenstein, rightfully regarded as one of the greatest…