Tag Archives: Guillermo del Toro

Pride Before the Fall

Nightmare Alley

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Step right up, folks, and witness a master of the macabre! See Guillermo Del Toro twist the familiar tale of ambition run amuck! Gasp at the lurid, gorgeous, vulgar world of Nightmare Alley!

Bradley Cooper stars as Stan, good lookin’ kid on the skids taken in by Clem (Willem Dafoe, creepy as ever) to carny for a traveling show. Stan picks up some tricks from mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner Pete (David Strathairn), then lures pretty Molly (Rooney Mara) to the big city to set up their own mind-reading racket.

Things are going swell, too, until Stan gets mixed up with psychiatrist Lillith (Cate Blanchett) whose patient list includes some high rollers with large bank accounts ripe for the picking.

That’s already one hell of an ensemble, but wait there’s more! Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and Tim Blake Nelson all add immeasurably to the sketchy world Stan orbits.

What Del Toro brings to the tale, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel (a solid slice of noir with Tyrone Power in the lead) dulled the edges of any seediness. Even Tod Browning’s Freaks – maligned as it was – found the unsettling carny life mainly wholesome.

Cinematographer Dan Lausten and composer Nathan Johnson create a delicious playground for Del Toro’s carnival to call home, one where even the most likable members of the family turn a blind eye to something genuinely sickening and cruel happening in their midst. The filmmaker plumbs that underlying horror, complicating Stan’s arc and allowing the film’s climax to leave a more lasting mark.

As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Cooper, Stan’s journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

And Blanchett – shocker – is gloriously vampy. She swims elegantly through the sea of noir-ish light and framing that Del Toro bathes her in, as Lillith casts a spell that renders Stan’s helplessness a fait accompli.

Nearly every aspect of the screenplay (co-written by Del Toro and Kim Morgan) creates a richer level of storytelling than the ’47 original. The dialog is more sharply insightful, the finale more dangerously tense and the characters – especially Mara’s stronger-willed Molly – more fully developed. All contribute greatly toward the film rebounding from a slightly sluggish first act to render the two and a half hour running time unconcerning.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply.

So as much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

Don’t believe me? See it with your own eyes, step right up!

Thump, Thump, Draaaag

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

by Hope Madden

Was there a story you heard as a kid that scared you sleepless? Mine was Bloody Fingers, the tale of a mangled man who dragged his carcass toward you. You could hear him coming: thump, thump, draaaaag. My neighbor used to sneak up behind me muttering those terrifying words.

Writer Alvin Schwartz knew how to work a kid’s nerves even better than my neighbor. Inspired by campfire tales and urban legends, he spun yarns for maximum kid fright, then paired them—and this is the important part—with the inspired line drawings by Stephen Gammell. The result, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, became the go-to for kids who like to be scared and schools who like to ban books.

Director André Øvredal (TrollHunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and co-writer Guillermo del Toro both know something about tingling the spine. Together with a team of writers—some veterans of horror, some of family films—they’ve created an affectionate and scary ode to the old series of books.

Set in Mill Town, Pennsylvania around Halloween, 1968—trees are turning, Nixon is about to be elected, Night of the Living Dead is showing at the drive in—Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows three wholesome high school outcasts and a handsome out-of-towner. On the run from the Vietnam-bound, letter-jacket wearing bully, they hide in the old, abandoned Bellows place. The town says the house is haunted.

Sounds a little cliched, right? The kind of story you’ve heard over and over, but that’s exactly the point. To begin to tell Schwartz’s tales—all of them pulled from the collective unconscious, all of them drawing on those same old stories that were new to us as kids—Øvredal sets a familiar and appropriate stage.

His framing device works well enough for a while. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), who hopes to be a writer herself, swipes creepy old child killer Sarah Bellows’s book of stories, but when she gets them home, new stories write themselves in the blank pages and, one by one, the kids in Mill Town go missing.

This is what PG-13 horror should look like. Yes, like most of the genre films engineered for youngsters, Scary Stories rehashes tropes familiar to adult viewers, but Øvredal’s clear fondness for the terrifying source material, especially the illustrations, gives the film the primal, almost grotesque innocence of a childhood nightmare.

The film’s tone is spot-on, performances solid and the set design and practical effects glorious. This is more than an anthology of shorts. It’s a cohesive whole that contains a handful of Schwartz’s nightmares, but the whole is not as great as the sum of its parts. Too heavy with clichés in the framing device, the film loses steam as it rolls into its third act.

An analogy of lost innocence, nostalgic without becoming too sentimental, this is old school scary, as unapologetically unoriginal as its source material and almost as effective.

 

Swimming in Romance

The Shape of Water

by Hope Madden

In its own way, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a tragic romance. But what if it weren’t? Tragic, I mean. What if beauty loved the beast?

It seems like a trend this year.

An unforgettable Sally Hawkins—an actor who has never hit a false note in her long and underappreciated career—gets her chance to lead a big, big show. She plays Elisa, a mute woman on the janitorial team for a research institute in Cold War era Baltimore.

Enter one night a malevolent man (Michael Shannon), and a mysterious container. Color Elisa intrigued.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is an overt romantic. So many of his films—Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peak—swim in romance, but he’s never made as dreamily romantic or hypnotically sensual a film as The Shape of Water. And he hasn’t made a film this glorious since his 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Del Toro favorite Doug Jones—Pan’s Pale Man and Hellboy’s Abe Sapien—gets back into a big, impressive suit, this time to play Amphibian Man. His presence is once again the perfect combination of the enigmatic and the familiar.

The supporting cast—Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg—are among the strongest character actors Hollywood has to offer and del Toro ensures that they have material worthy of their talent. Each character is afforded not only his or her own personality but peculiarity, which is what makes us all both human and unique—important themes in keeping with the story. With Hawkins and Jones, they populate a darkly whimsical, stylish and retro world.

Characteristic of del Toro’s work, Shape of Water looks amazing. Its color scheme of appropriate greens and blues also creates the impossible truth of sameness within otherness, or the familiar with the alien.

The aesthetic is echoed in Alexandre Desplat’s otherworldly score and mirrored by Dan Laustsen’s dancing camera.

The end result is a beautiful ode to outsiders, love and doing what you must.





Fright Club: Best Spanish Language Horror

!Dios mio! There are so many exceptional Spanish language horror films, it was hard to choose just 5 – so we didn’t! Whether it’s a Mexican director working in Spain, a Cuban zombiepocalypse, or ghosts, zombies, mad doctors or madder clowns, we have you covered with our fuzzy math salute to el cine de los muertos.

6. Juan of the Dead (2011)

By 2011, finding a zombie film with something new to say was pretty difficult, but writer/director/Cuban Alejandro Bruges managed to do just that with his bloody political satire Juan of the Dead.

First, what a kick ass title. Honestly, that’s a lot to live up to, begging the comparison of Dawn’s scathing social commentary and Shaun’s ingenious wit. Juan more than survives this comparison.

Breathtakingly and unapologetically Cuban, the film shadows Juan and his pals as they reconfigure their longtime survival instincts to make the most of Cuba’s zombie infestation. It’s a whole new approach to the zombiepocalypse and it’s entirely entertaining.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZrKJvX7mjg

5. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone unravels a spectral mystery during Spain’s civil war. The son of a fallen comrade finds himself in an isolated orphanage that has its own troubles to deal with, now that the war is coming to a close and the facility’s staff sympathized with the wrong side. That leaves few resources to help him with a bully, a sadistic handyman, or the ghost of a little boy he keeps seeing.

Backbone is a slow burn as interested in atmosphere and character development as it is in the tragedy of a generation of war orphans. This is ripe ground for a haunted tale, and del Toro’s achievement is both contextually beautiful – war, ghost stories, religion and communism being equally incomprehensible to a pack of lonely boys – and elegantly filmed.

Touching, political, brutal, savvy, and deeply spooky, Backbone separated del Toro from the pack of horror filmmakers and predicted his potential as a director of substance.

4. The Skin I Live In (2011)

In 2011, the great Pedro Almodovar created something like a cross between Eyes Without a Face and Lucky McGee’s The Woman, with all the breathtaking visual imagery and homosexual overtones you can expect from an Almodovar project.

The film begs for the least amount of summarization because every slow reveal is placed so perfectly within the film, and to share it in advance is to rob you of the joy of watching. Antonio Banderas gives a lovely, restrained performance as Dr. Robert Ledgard, and Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes are spectacular.

Not a frame is wasted, not a single visual is placed unconsciously. Dripping with symbolism, the film takes a pulpy and ridiculous story line and twists it into something marvelous to behold. Don’t dismiss this as a medical horror film. Pay attention – not just to catch the clues as the story unfolds, but more importantly, to catch the bigger picture Almodovar is creating.

3. [Rec] (2007)

Found footage horror at its best, [Rec] shares one cameraman’s film of the night he and a reporter tagged along with a local fire department. Bad, bad things will happen.

The squad gets a call from an urban apartment building where one elderly tenant keeps screaming. No sooner do the paramedics and news crew realize they’ve stepped into a dangerous situation than the building is sealed off and power is cut. Suddenly we’re trapped in the dark inside a building with about fifteen people, some of them ill, some of them bleeding, some of them biting.

The found footage approach never feels tired – at first, he’s documenting his story, then he’s using the only clear view in the darkened building. The point of view allows [Rec] a lean, mean funhouse experience.

2. The Last Circus (2010)

Who’s in the mood for something weird?

Unhinged Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia offers The Last Circus, a breathtakingly bizarre look at a Big Top love triangle set in Franco’s Spain.

Describing the story in much detail would risk giving away too many of the astonishing images. A boy loses his performer father to conscription in Spain’s civil war, and decades later, with Franco’s reign’s end in sight, he follows in pop’s clown-sized footsteps and joins the circus. There he falls for another clown’s woman, and stuff gets nutty.

Iglesia’s direction slides from sublime, black and white surrealist history to something else entirely. Acts 2 and 3 evolve into something gloriously grotesque – a sideshow that mixes political metaphor with carnival nightmare.

The Last Circus boasts more than brilliantly wrong-minded direction and stunningly macabre imagery – though of these things it certainly boasts. Within that bloody and perverse chaos are some of the more touching performances to be found onscreen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oM2corZvDTI

1. The Orphanage (2007)

Sometimes a throwback is the most refreshing kind of film. Spain’s The Orphanage offers just that fresh breath with a haunted house tale that manages to be familiar and surprising and, most importantly, spooky.

Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son, Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.

One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts.

A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.

Listen to the full conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.





Missed Opportunity

Crimson Peak

by Hope Madden

A quick scan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s work emphasizes his particular capacity for creepiness. His success likely lies partly in his visual flair and partly in his patient storytelling, but it’s his own mad genius that pulls these elements together in sometimes utterly brilliant efforts, like Pan’s Labyrinth.

That’s a high water mark he may never reach again, but his latest, Crimson Peak, can’t even see that high, let alone touch it.

Del Toro has pulled together the genuine talents of Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska – as well as the questionable competence of Charlie Hunnam – to populate this diabolical love story.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is wooed away from home and childhood beau (Hunnam) by dreamy new suitor Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), regardless of his sister’s unpleasantness or her own father’s disdain. But the siblings may have dastardly motives, not to mention some rather vocal skeletons in their closet.

All four actors struggle. Hunnam has little chance with his underwritten sweetheart role, while Hiddleston is wasted as a spineless yet dreamy baronet. There is no chemistry between Wasikowska and anyone, and while Chastain is often fun to watch as a malevolent force, the cast can’t congeal as a group, so much of her bubbling evil is wasted.

Characteristic of a del Toro effort, however, the film looks fantastic. Gorgeous period pieces drip with symbolism and menace, creating an environment ideal for the old fashioned ghost story unspooling.

But where certain monstrous images blended nicely into the drama of Labyrinth, here they look and feel a part of another film entirely. The garish colors of a Dario Argento horror bleed into the somber gothic mystery. Edith’s ghastly, yet utterly modern, visions not only break the bygone feel the film develops, they awkwardly punctuate Peak’s tensely deliberate pace.

Tonal shifts between lurid and subtle only compound a problem with weak writing, and del Toro struggles to develop the twisted love story required to make the murky depths of the villainy believable.

In the end, Crimson Peak is the sad story of great resources but wasted effort.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Of Sea Monsters and Men

Pacific Rim

by Hope Madden

We’re on the edge of an apocalypse and Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) needs to let go of the past if he wants to save our future.

It was from the sensory-overload seats this week that I took in the IMAX 3D extravaganza that is Pacific Rim – the story of a boy, a robot, and a lot of clichés. Who’d have thought wretched excess could be so dull?

Director Guillermo del Toro tackles his biggest project to date, dropping $200 million on yet another monster movie. Whether a vampire, a mutating alien, a ghost, another vampire, a Hellboy or a labyrinth full of creatures, del Toro does have a preoccupation with monsters. (And Ron Perlman.)

This time the beasties are sort of sea creatures from another dimension in a film that amounts to Godzilla meets the Transformers. The generally capable, sometimes spectacular director doesn’t stop cribbing ideas there. You can find Aliens, Real Steel, maybe some Top Gun, even a little Being John Malkovich in there if you really try.

Indeed, there’s nary a single truly unique idea in the picture. Instead, del Toro relies on the abundance – glut, even – of cinematic clichés to free himself up to focus on more technical stuff, and technically speaking, the film’s pretty impressive. But not overly so.

Del Toro’s real passion seems always to have been in the creation of monsters – dude loves him some tentacles – but too few of these creatures are visually articulate enough to be really memorable or impressive. Without that, the visceral impact he’s after never fully materializes.

Sure, the concussive sound editing and even more abusive score take the experience up a sonic notch, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Combined with sloppy scripting and performance that are – well –  bad, the self indulgent Pacific Rim manages to be the least impressive blockbuster yet this summer. And it’s been a pretty weak summer.

Verdict-2-0-Stars