Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons from Criterion’s Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro: Cronos (1994), The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Open Criterion’s box set containing the three Spanish-language features of Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro, and the first thing you’ll notice is that its interior folds out into a fiery red cross.

Named Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro in the director’s native tongue, this home video haven enshrines Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth as the writer-director’s veritable holy trinity. Inscribed on the cross’ top point is the Latin phrase “In Consilis Nostris Fatum Nostrum Est”—a philosophical musing, which appears in Pan’s Labyrinth, that translates to “Our choices determine our fate.” To suggest that these words serve as del Toro’s moviemaking mantra would be an exercise in obviation. For the self-described “lapsed Catholic” whose worship in the “cathedral” of horror and dark fantasy is “evangelical” (terms he has used throughout his career), his personal and artistic decisions are of biblical proportion, his cinematic stories literally and figuratively matters of life and death.

The culmination of del Toro’s lifelong devotion to crafting definitive companion pieces that assist in unearthing the meaning of his multi-faceted film art, Criterion’s package offers moviemakers an instructive snapshot of how one can pave his/her own progressive path to thematic sophistication.

Supervised with paternalistic perfectionism and approved by del Toro, Criterion’s release hosts an exhaustive set of special features: introductions, audio commentaries, making-of documentaries, production storyboards and thumbnails and interactive director’s notebooks for all three films; interviews with del Toro, director of photography Guillermo Navarro, and actors Doug Jones, Federico Luppi and Ron Perlman; “Welcome to Bleak House,” a 2010 video tour by del Toro of his now-famous house reserved for his personal collection of art and rare, obscure objects; a conversation on the fairy tale milieu of Pan’s Labyrinth between del Toro and novelist Cornelia Funke; “Geometria,” a 1987 short horror film by del Toro finished in 2010; footage of actor Ivana Baquero’s audition for Pan’s Labyrinth in 2005; deleted scenes from The Devil’s Backbone with commentary by del Toro; a featurette on The Devil’s Backbone’s depiction of the Spanish Civil War; animated comics featuring prequel stories for the creatures of Pan’s Labyrinth; still galleries and English subtitle translations captioned and approved by del Toro, respectively; trailers and TV spots and more.

Lessons in Fleshing Out Your Film’s Themes

Cronos

Walking through the corridors of his man-cave in the “Welcome to Bleak House” video tour as he reflects on making Cronos, del Toro is quick to describe his debut vampire feature as “an exploded view of my brain,” but can’t bring himself to call it his “first movie.” Equal parts commercial calling card (its critical acclaim landed him his first studio project, Mimic, in 1997) and training ground for thematic exploration, Cronos is successful in its resourcefulness but limited by its resources, and is perhaps best understood as an authorial blueprint for the “real films” he would make years after its release.

The story: Antique dealer Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) discovers a centuries-old insectoid mechanism that gives him eternal life and is subsequently tracked down by decrepit businessman Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook) and his American neanderthal nephew Angel (Ron Perlman), both of whom seek to possess the scarab-shaped contraption to horde its immortalizing power.

Deriving dynamic human relationships from one ingeniously conceived “Cronos device”—from which the film gets its nameCronos proves that even one object or artifact can hold the key to crafting a memorable mythos, and to enriching your film’s style with well-established themes.

Jesús Gris laps up a bystander’s blood in a ballroom bathroom. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

In the interview on the box set’s Cronos disc, del Toro poses his obsessive fixations with familial decomposition and Catholic guilt (his resurrected lead being named Jesús is no accident) for consideration. Directing viewers’ attention to the various automatons that lie about his Bleak House in the video tour, he also makes apparent the parallels between the material items of his off-screen home and the gold-encrusted apparatus of Cronos‘ on-screen universe. Whether you’re a hobbyist collector or not, del Toro’s conscious injection of his personal passions into his professional projects should push you to become aware of and in touch with the thematic fascinations that may inform your film’s narrative and production design.

The Cronos device is a potent visual metaphor not only for Cronos‘ aforementioned subtextual layers, but for the many moving parts that, like the device’s inner-workings, operate together to form the film’s cohesive whole. At their core, each plot development—the introduction of an ancient alchemist and his mysterious manuscript, a man’s transformation from quaint, loving husband/grandfather to ravenous vampire, an uncle-nephew relationship corrupted by greed, etc.—could stand alone as a short story in its own right. That del Toro binds them together by using his titular device as their connective tissue is the film’s most teachable achievement: Just as the writer-director sustains his feature-length tale with the symbolist flourishes honed in short-form horror by such literary luminaries as H.P. Lovecraft, so can moviemakers conflate a series of their own “standalone” ideas into a dense, sprawling story of grand scope and scale. 

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