Guillermo del Toro is one of the main figures working in modern horror currently. His movies—no matter how large or small they are in size—all manage to explore and deconstruct numerous subgenres within horror, though del Toro remains anything but a one-trick pony. Throughout his career, he’s managed to make large-budgeted Hollywood epics, superhero movies, and several award-winning period pieces centered on historical backdrops.
Whether he is analyzing a Gothic ghost story set in the Spanish Civil War, or making a movie about giant robots battling kaiju, del Toro always puts his best efforts into making the kind of film he wants to see, and exploring subject matter and elements of horror that he finds interesting.
With del Toro’s new film, Pinocchio, set for release in December, we thought we’d take a look back at del Toro’s career so far, ranking his movies from worst to best.
After establishing himself on the Mexican independent film scene with his 1993 debut, Cronos, a young del Toro was recruited by Miramax to helm Mimic, a sci-fi horror movie with a considerably larger budget than any other project del Toro had worked on prior, as well as the chance to work with some prominent Hollywood actors (Josh Brolin, F. Murray Hamilton, and Mira Sorvino).
The movie’s action begins when entomologist Susan Tyler (Sorvino) develops a mutated insect species to kill off Manhattan's cockroaches, who are carrying a deadly disease infecting the city's children. Though initially successful—with the cockroaches having been seemingly killed off—the mutant insects survive, and return three years later, having grown into large creatures able to take the form of human beings.
It may have been a daunting project for any relative newcomer to handle, but del Toro approached the project with an unprecedented level of confidence and competence for his age (33), delivering a film that helped transition del Toro from the indie scene onto the Hollywood circuit.
That being said, why exactly is this movie so low on the list? Simple: Miramax denied del Toro final cut, producing a film that did well enough critically, but failed to gross serious earnings at the box office. It's a project that del Toro remained distraught over for years, so much so that his friend James Cameron very nearly came to blows with Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein over their treatment of del Toro—and given what we know of Weinstein now, boy, we would’ve like to see that).
In 2011, del Toro saw some closure with the movie by producing a director's cut, of which he said, “It’s not exactly the movie I wanted to do, but it definitely healed a lot of wounds.”
It's this director's cut version of the film we suggest viewing—though only six minutes longer than the theatrical cut, it's an improvement that comes as close as possible to del Toro's original vision for the film. Even the theatrical cut, though, still manages to show just enough of del Toro's talents and sensibility as a director, something Miramax couldn't fully snuff out in their cut of the movie.
Today, Mimic may be the weakest of del Toro’s—we can blame Miramax for that—but it remains one definitely worth watching.
Streaming on HBO Max.
9. Blade II
In 2002, del Toro's love for comic books would pay off in one of his earliest, most financially successful films, Blade II. After departing Hollywood and returning to the independent background he'd started off on with The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro returned to Hollywood to direct Blade‘s sequel, with the studio believing his love for horror and dark subject matter would be an ideal fit for Blade—something that, seeing the finished film, absolutely rings true.
Blade II follows the human-vampire hybrid (Wesley Snipes) as he continues his lifelong quest to hunt down and destroy as many vampires as he can. His mission is soon interrupted by the appearance of a new, evolved vampire breed called the Reapers, who feed on both human and vampire blood.
With a common enemy in sight, Blade joins a ragtag group of elite vampires and humans, battling the Reapers to save both human and vampire races from extinction. Written by fellow comics fan David Goyer (whose penchant for darker superhero stories would come full circle with the Dark Knight trilogy), del Toro deliberately set out to reinvent the vampire story after the horror subgenre had begun taking a more romanticized approach.
In an attempt to establish vampires as the terrifying creatures of the night they had once been, del Toro deliberately amped up the horror elements in the film, weaving in inspiration from Japanese anime and the horror comics he had read growing up. The end result in Blade II proved that del Toro's unorthodox approach worked well in adapting such a horror-centric superhero for film, creating easily the best film in the Blade trilogy in the process.
Compared to del Toro's later career, it may be a relatively minor film, but it's one that hinted to Hollywood producers that—when you leave del Toro to his own devices—he'll still manage to deliver an incredibly outside-the-box movie that critics and audiences all enjoy seeing.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online.
8. Pacific Rim
Throughout the first decade and a half of his career, del Toro had made a name for himself for tackling and reinventing several different subgenres within horror, such as his exploration of vampirism in Cronos and Blade II, and his reinvention of the traditional ghost story in The Devil's Backbone. In 2013, del Toro would turn his attention to the kaiju subgenre with Pacific Rim.
Set in the near-future, the world is thrown into chaos by the emergence of towering monsters who have begun appearing on Earth through an interdimensional portal. To fight these monsters off, humanity builds gigantic, robotic vehicles (known as “Jaegers” in the film) controlled by neurologically linked pilots.
After years of fighting, mankind teeters on the edge of extinction, with humanity's final hope resting on the partnership of a depressed, washed up pilot (Charlie Hunnam) and a young, untested rookie (Rinko Kikuchi).
Pacific Rim may sound like your standard giant-robots-battling-monsters-type movie, but it manages to include elements that deal with more nuanced themes, such as survivor's guilt, PTSD, and individuals looking for connection (quite literally in the case of piloting the Jaegers). As had been the case with del Toro's other work, too, it also includes plenty of homages not only to the kaiju movies that clearly influenced the film, but also to anime and mecha movies that served as inspiration for the movie as well.
In many ways, Pacific Rim seems like the kind of Hollywood big-budget project made for the sole purpose of profit, lacking any emotional depth or heart (something its sequel was criticized for). However, del Toro has always thrived on making each and every one of his projects personal, injecting enough warmness and personality into each movie and making them each unique and incredibly enjoyable in the process.
It remains an intelligent, lovingly-made movie that earned praise from numerous horror, sci-fi, and kaiju fans, including fellow filmmaker Rian Johnson, famed video game designer Hideo Kojima, and respected sci-fi writer, William Gibson.
Streaming on HBO Max.
Cashing in on his love for comics with his hit 2002 film, Blade II, del Toro once again turned his attention into developing a longtime passion project onto film, this time adapting Mike Mignola‘s cult-favorite horror series, Hellboy, to the Big Screen. In the movie's opening, a skilled team of US military personnel and paranormal experts stop Nazi occultists from opening a portal that will unleash various otherworldly monsters they believe will help them achieve world domination.
Though successful, a young demon manages to cross over into their world, eventually growing up to be the superhero Hellboy (Ron Perlman) who saves the world from paranormal creatures threatening to destroy it. Del Toro had long been a fan of Mignola's popular horror pulp series, making him an ideal choice when it came to adapting Mignola's comic onto film.
Working closely with Mignola, del Toro managed to deviate just enough from the comics—tweaking some characters' personalities, adding in a few other characters—while also managing to stay incredibly faithful to the source material, blending several of Mignola's stories together to create the central storyline of this movie.
Released just before the superhero craze of the late 2000s', Hellboy was—like Blade II before it—a distinctly different kind of superhero film, one that paid more homage to Lovecraftian monsters, old '40s pulp superheroes, and Gothic horror conventions than other superhero films of its era (the first few X-Men films and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies).
Nearly twenty years later, and even after the subsequent thirty MCU movies that followed, Hellboy remains a very different sort of superhero movie, one that was equally funny as it was horror-centric.
Streaming on HBO Max.
6. Crimson Peak
Del Toro's films in the late 2000s' into the early 2010s' remained massive financial successes for the director, with both Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Pacific Rim easily grossing huge numbers at the box office. After the success of Pacific Rim, his next project served as a return to the more horror-themed roots the filmmaker had gotten his start making with Crimson Peak.
In 1880s' Buffalo, aspiring young writer Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of a wealthy American businessman (Jim Beaver), struggling to make a name for herself, and not wishing to be a mere trophy wife who marries rich and never accomplishes anything.
After a personal tragedy uproots her, Edith falls for a mysterious, charismatic Englishman (Tom Hiddlestone), marrying him and moving into his mansion in the English countryside that he shares with his sister (Jessica Chastain). The more time Edith spends at her new home, however, the more she begins to suspect something sinister may be lurking in the mansion.
Similar in its subject material to The Devil's Backbone—both films feature an exploration of benevolent ghosts set during a distinct historical time period—Crimson Peak possesses a similar tone to the Victorian writers who inspired it, coming off as an interesting blend between the romantic writings of Brontë and the Gothic ghost stories of Algernon Blackwood and Edgar Allan Poe.
Del Toro's decision to cast Mia Wasikowska—fresh off the heels of her similarly-toned-albeit-not-as-horror-heavy Gothic adaptations of Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, and to a certain extent Alice in Wonderland—was another inspired decision on his part, as was his choice to cast Tom Hiddlestone and Jessica Chastain, two actors who seem like they walked straight out of a Brontë novel as is.
Crimson Peak would serve as another interesting entry into del Toro's layered filmography—existing as his take on the Gothic ghost story, as well as one of his earliest straight forays into romance (something he touched upon in Hellboy, and that would come to full fruition in his next movie, The Shape of Water).
Streaming on Netflix.
5. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
In 2008, del Toro returned once again to the Hellboy universe he had begun building with his first Hellboy film, creating a sequel that—in quite a few ways—surpassed the original movie. In this sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, del Toro again collaborated with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, this time coming up with an entirely original storyline rather than adapting any of Mignola's pre-existing material.
Set shortly after the first movie, The Golden Army focuses on an elvish prince trying to find the remnants of a mythical crown that grants whoever wears it complete over an ancient clockwork army. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his team race against time in order to stop this human-hating prince before he's able to take control of the all-powerful Golden Army the prince then plans to use to destroy mankind.
Unlike the earlier Hellboy film that was steeped in Mignola's original concepts and conventions—Nazi occultists and otherworldly, Lovecraftian monsters—del Toro attempted to inject a much more heightened fantasy element into this film, building off the idea that the magical world is spilling into the human world as we know it.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
This new atmosphere of the movie—focused more on magical realism than the darker, horror tone of the first movie—earned the movie critical praise, serving as yet another huge financial success for del Toro.
Though utilizing an original story centered more on folklore and mythology than the first movie, del Toro still also managed to utilize several elements from the comic that fans had also longed to see on film—namely, the appearance of fan-favorite character, Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic being who was formerly a German psychic, hilariously voiced by Seth MacFarlane.
An incredibly entertaining movie, full of fantasy, horror, and comedic moments, it was originally going to be the middle chapter in what was a planned trilogy by del Toro, with the final film, unfortunately, never coming to fruition. Seeing how good his final film in The Golden Army was, though, no doubt it would've been interesting to see what del Toro had in store for his final on-screen adventure.
Not currently streaming, but available to rent online.
After spending his childhood and early twenties working on various short films throughout the late '80s and early '90s, del Toro released his feature debut, Cronos, in 1993. A postmodern vampire story, Cronos tells the story of an old, kind-hearted antiques dealer (Federico Luppi) who chances upon a mysterious device able to grant eternal life at a terrible cost.
When he accidentally triggers the device and begins reverting back to his younger, healthier self, he develops an inexplicable taste for human blood, eventually coming to odds with a wealthy businessman and his brutish nephew (Ron Perlman) who want the device for themselves. Though his debut effort, Cronos has no trace of being made by an amateur, possessing a level of depth and mastery in style and tone that few directors are able to capture by their third or fourth film, never mind their first.
Its approach to the vampire genre itself remains an ingeniously unique exploration of the famous horror monsters, portraying the vampiric curse almost as a drug addiction—the antiques dealer goes through severe withdrawal symptoms when he is unable to feed—creating easily one of the most original vampire films of the past twenty years.
It may not measure up to the acclaim or popularity of some other filmmakers' debuts, but it certainly has every right to be, remaining an intelligent and interesting dissection of a famous horror subgenre—an approach del Toro would adopt again and again in the years to come.
Streaming on HBO Max.
3. The Devil's Backbone
In 2001, del Toro would momentarily return to relatively smaller, independently-financed projects similar in style and tone to his debut, Cronos. This new project would blend historical drama with a distinct horror subgenre (in this case, a ghost story set during the tale end of the Spanish Civil War), creating one of the most original, unique films in the process.
Set in the Spanish countryside in 1939, Franco's fascist forces are closing in on a final victory over the liberal Republican forces. His left-leaning parents having been killed in the war, ten-year-old Carlos (Fernando Tielve) is sent to a remote orphanage to live under the tutelage of a caring doctor (Federico Luppi) and his wife (Marisa Paredes).
Bonding with his fellow orphans, Carlos soon encounters the ghost of a young boy who died at the orphanage, and who warns Carlos that “many of you will die.” Whether that dangers comes from Franco's troops, the active bomb ticking away in the center of the orphanage, the amoral caretaker (Eduardo Noriega) looking for the gold hidden somewhere in the building, or the ghost itself remains a mystery the orphans must solve.
The Devil's Backbone
You have to admire del Toro for his decision to step back to the indie scene and make this movie—a passion project that he likely returned to after failing to entice potential producers in Hollywood. Regardless of Hollywood's lack of interest in the project, he set out to make the film he wanted to make—using a largely unknown cast, filming the movie in Spanish, and centering it on a ghost story that turned the horror story on its head, painting the ghost not as some malevolent ghoul, but as the lost soul of a boy unable to find peace.
It was an act of pure genius on del Toro's to set the film during the Spanish Civil War—an incredibly interesting time period and one that few people extensively know a lot about.
With this film, he manages to balance the narrative between two plotlines, one centering around a magical realist plot involving the orphans investigating the ghost's death, and the other concerned with the real-world implications of the rise of Franco's autocratic regime.
It's a split narrative that mixed historical drama with fantasy incredibly well, and remained a balancing act del Toro would return to again, with similarly impressive results, in Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, and his upcoming Pinocchio film.
Streaming on HBO Max.
2. The Shape of Water
A spiritual successor to The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water feels like an unofficial thematic sequel loosely rounding out a trilogy composed of the latter two movies. As he had managed to frame the two aforementioned stories during the Spanish Civil War—using the era as a jumping-off point and featuring narratives that focused on magical realist plots—The Shape of Water follows a very similar formula.
Set during the height of the Cold War, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute custodial worker employed at a top-secret American research base in Baltimore. Her life takes an unexpected turn, however, when government workers—led by a ruthless, sociopathic agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon)—bring in a mysterious amphibian creature (Doug Jones) from a remote region of the Amazon.
The more time Elisa secretly spends with the creature, the more she begins to fall in love with it, eventually plotting his escape with the help of her two friends (Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins).
The Shape of Water
As he had re-evaluated the ghost story in The Devil's Backbone and fairy tales in Pan’s Labyrinths, del Toro revisits a key hallmark in horror with this movie, this time exploring a 1950s' creature feature from the lenses of the creature itself, treating the subgenre with incredible sentimentality and sympathy. Here, the film’s creature isn’t some B-movie monster out to mindlessly kill humans. It’s an animal taken from its habitat, and poked and prodded by government agents who only want to dissect it to understand how it works.
In a few key ways, The Shape of Water feels like an inverted Creature from the Black Lagoon (fittingly a huge inspiration for the creature's design in this movie) framed as a romance—a love story we guarantee will be unlike anything else you'll ever see.
It has marvelous acting from all the actors involved—especially Hawkins, who manages to portray a ridiculous amount of emotion without having to utter a word—and a sense of wonder that tonally resembles the fantasy-laden atmospheres of Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone. (Though an adult woman rather than a young child protagonist, Elisa maintains a childlike sense of wonder and innocence throughout, feeling like a grownup version of Labyrinth's Ofelia.)
It would be this film that earned del Toro perhaps the highest praise of his career, earning him the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design, among other prestigious prizes.
Streaming on Prime Video's freevee.
1. Pan's Labyrinth
Not to take anything away from del Toro or diminish any of his accomplishments since this movie—with all of his films that has followed each managing to be enjoyable and entertaining in their own right—it’s del Toro's 2006 dark fantasy film, Pan's Labyrinth, that remains easily his best and most noteworthy.
Like most of his films before and after it, Pan's Labyrinth serves as a wonderful modern fantasy story full of horror, magic, and wonder, making amazing use of its setting and plot, and showing del Toro's wide-ranging ability to move from Hollywood blockbuster (he'd just made Hellboy before this) to Spanish arthouse films with a limited setting and a somewhat tighter budget.
Five years after the Spanish Civil War, Franco's fascist government rules the nation, snuffing out the last remnants of liberal resistance fighters spread throughout the country. Against that tumultuous backdrop, ten-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother (Ariadna Gil) journey to an isolated military outpost to meet Ofelia's new stepfather (Sergi López), a vicious, psychopathic army commander and staunch fascist.
As Ofelia spends time on her own at the outpost, she encounters a collection of magical creatures who believe her to be a reincarnation of a mythical princess, and who task her with completing three tests in order to return to her kingdom.
A fairy tale set in war-torn Europe, Pan's Labyrinth closely parallels del Toro's earlier Devil's Backbone. Both films featured stories set around the Spanish Civil War told from a child's perspective, with narratives split between a more grounded, realistic storyline centered around the adults, and the other focusing on magical realist plots centered on the child protagonists.
However, whereas del Toro managed to retell his own, more sympathetic version of the ghost story in The Devil's Backbone, here he manages to reevaluate a fairy tale set in the horrifying reality of the 1940s'—one of the most brutal, oppressive eras in mankind's history.
Equal parts Alice in Wonderland, Narnia, Labyrinth, and Spirited Away rolled into one, Pan's Labyrinth would be one of the most successful films in del Toro's career, earning numerous international award nominations, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, and winning the BAFTA for Best Film Not in the English Language.
Streaming on STARZ.
Since his feature debut in 1993, Guillermo del Toro has become one of the greatest international directors of the modern era—a director seamlessly able to craft unique superhero blockbusters in one moment, and in the next make a critically acclaimed independent foreign film. The main thing that sets del Toro's movies apart, however, is his ability to work within and reevaluate set genres, featuring stories and plotlines seen from new and unique lenses and perspectives.
Whether that means portraying a '50s era B-movie monster as a sympathetic creature thrust into an unknown, hostile environment by human scientists, or setting a fairy tale in the midst of a brutal Spanish war, his movies depict narratives that audiences have never seen before, with each one managing to be made with a level of enthusiasm and care few directors are able to match.
There have been a number of notable films from directors like Jason Reitman, Terry Gilliam, and Paul Thomas Anderson, but Guillermo del Toro exists on a higher plane, creating jaw-dropping realms of horror and passion through a unique lens.
We have no idea what to expect when it comes to del Toro's upcoming Netflix animated movie, Pinocchio, but given the director's track record so far, we're sure the film will be incredibly well made and entertaining in its own unique way.
This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.