Three excellent films in one beautiful box set.
Over the course of his career, director Guillermo del Toro has deftly navigated his way between intimate, small-scale independent movies and lavish studio blockbusters. Unlike a lot of other filmmakers who take a “one for them, one for me” approach to their profession, del Toro has somehow managed to keep his unique voice firmly at the center of everything he’s made. Even so, he seems to access a higher level of emotional power when he’s working in his native language, and Criterion’s gorgeous new box set gives fans an opportunity to revisit the director’s three Spanish-language films.
We begin with Cronos, del Toro’s directorial debut. The film stars Federico Luppi (Pan’s Labyrinth) as an elderly antiques dealer who discovers a mysterious mechanical object: a golden scarab. As he’s inspecting it, the device suddenly springs to life and plunges its sharp mechanical legs into the old man’s flesh. The man rips the device off and puts it away, but soon begins experiencing an unexpected side effect: he feels healthier and more alive than he has in years. Is it possible that this bloodthirsty scarab has the power to grant eternal life? Possibly so, but the antiques dealer soon encounters Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook, Revenge), a wealthy but terminally ill old man who is desperate to get his hands on the scarab. Dieter insists that using the scarab requires adhering to a very strict set of rules… and he’s the only one who has the rulebook.
Like a lot of low-budget first features, Cronos is a little rough around the edges and lacks the polish of… well, pretty much everything else the director has made. Even so, it’s an elegant and often dazzlingly unique modern folk tale that finds a completely fresh take on the well-worn vampire genre. The tale is spare and focused but never predictable, working as an effectively melancholy piece of horror and as a powerful religious parable (if a slightly heavy-handed one: the antiques dealer is named Jesus Gris). Luppi’s restrained work in the central role is exceptional (he persuasively makes the transition from grandfatherly warmth to feral depravity), and there’s a fun supporting turn from frequent del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy) as Dieter’s violent, bitter nephew.
Next up is The Devil’s Backbone, Del Toro’s third feature (his follow-up to Cronos was Mimic, a mid-budget Hollywood sci-fi flick hampered by aggressive studio interference). This time, the director takes us back to the Spanish Civil War and zooms in the residents of a humble Spanish orphanage. The orphanage is run by Dr. Casares (Luppi, who appears in all three of films in this collection) and his wife Carmen (Marisa Paredes, Goya, A Story of Solitude), who do what they can to support the Republican loyalists and have accepted the task of keeping a large supply of Republican gold in their safe.
A young man named Jacinto serves as the groundskeeper at the orphanage, and the boys fear him due to his tendency to overreact to misbehavior. Ah, but Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega, Vantage Point) has been indulging in a bit of misbehavior of his own, carrying on an affair with Carmen while secretly working on an unsavory plot to make himself rich. Meanwhile, a new arrival named Carlos (Fernando Tielve) discovers a mysterious apparition that may be able to lead him to some of the orphanage’s darkest secrets.
Here, we find the director demonstrating a considerably greater level of technical expertise and narrative sophistication, simultaneously turning in a spine-tingling ghost story, a metaphorically-charged examination of the Spanish Civil War and an emotionally gripping coming-of-age tale. As in all of the films featured in this collection, the real horror isn’t found in the supernatural realm. The opening narration gives you a strong indication of the kind of story del Toro is telling: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
The ghosts in The Devil’s Backbone are not creatures of terror, but of tragedy: reminders of dark truths that humanity has buried. This is a film of painful beauty, reminding us of both how fragile life can be and how cruel circumstances can make us. Jacinto is one of del Toro’s most fascinating villains; a man who gradually embraces ever-increasing degrees of wickedness and finds it surprisingly easy to suppress the cries of his conscience. The film is one of the director’s most personal and indelible works; a small-scale demonstration of all of his artistic gifts.
Pan’s Labyrinth is easily the biggest and most expensive film of the collection (if still modest in contrast to Del Toro’s blockbusters), and is the only film that hadn’t been previously released by the good folks at Criterion. It’s a spiritual successor to The Devil’s Backbone in a number of ways, offering another fascinating collision of real-life horror and metaphorically-charged fantasy (this time unfolding in the wake of the Spanish Civil War). However, while The Devil’s Backbone examines real-world issues through the lens of a supernatural gothic romance, Pan’s Labyrinth presents them as pieces of a classic fairy tale.
The tale’s central figure is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, The New Daughter), a young girl whose mother Carmen (Adriana Gil, Soldiers of Salamina) has just married the cruel, cold-hearted Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez, Dirty Pretty Things). The latter has been tasked with hunting down Republican rebels, and he uses his assignment to indulge his penchant for sadism. Ofelia is clearly uncomfortable in this new setting (and wonders how her mother ever could have fallen for this monster), but is soon given an opportunity to escape from reality. She meets a mysterious faun (Doug Jones, Hellboy II: The Golden Army), who claims that Ofelia is the reincarnation of a legendary princess. The faun says that Ofelia will have three challenging tasks to complete, and that her success will allow her to regain her immortality and take her rightful place as princess.
Pan’s Labyrinth has an unmistakable air of operatic tragedy, opening with the revelation that Ofelia is going to die and accompanied by a haunting Javier Navarette score built around a mournful-yet-beautiful lullaby. The film has a real sense of childlike wonder during the fairy tale sequences, but elsewhere is Del Toro’s darkest and most ferociously violent movie. With graceful empathy, the director makes it clear that Ofelia’s fantastical quest is her way of coping with the horrors of the world around her.
There are plenty of fantastical fairy tale images on display, and some of these wander into exceptionally unsettling territory (particularly the shudder-inducing encounter with the Pale Man). Even so, there’s no question that Captain Vidal is the film’s most terrifying figure; a pitiless sadist who feels like a colder, harder, older version of Jacinto. Like his protagonist, del Toro uses fantasy to help us process a tale that might have been unbearably difficult to endure if shown through a lens of unflinching reality. It’s an extraordinary, heartbreaking film about finding beauty and hope in a world that has precious little of either.
Trilogia de Guillermo del Toro (Blu-ray) Criterion is an impressive box set, but those who already own the Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone Blu-rays may be wondering whether they should bother upgrading to this collection instead of simply purchasing the stand-alone Pan’s Labyrinth Blu-ray. While the discs themselves contain exactly the same supplements as the stand-alone releases, there are a couple of reasons collectors may want to consider the box set. First is the attractive, creative fold-out packaging, which is a pretty beautiful piece of design. Second (and more important) is the inclusion of a 100-page hardcover book featuring an introduction by Neil Gaiman, multiple essays, production notes, sketches and more.
I won’t bother detailing the transfers on Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, as they look and sound exactly the same as when Criterion released them years ago. The new Pan’s Labyrinth disc looks sensational, though, benefitting from a gorgeous new transfer that offers exceptional detail, deep blacks, strong shadow delineation and rich, full colors. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio track is superb, blending the complex sound design, gorgeous score and dialogue together superbly.
Supplements are incredibly generous: audio commentaries with del Toro on all three films, interviews with del Toro, cinematographer Diego Navarro, and actors Ron Perlman, Federico Luppi and Doug Jones, a tour of del Toro’s collectible-filled house, a new piece on Pan’s Labyrinth with del Toro and Cornelia Funke, interactive director’s notebooks for The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, making-of documentaries for The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, a 1987 horror short called “Geometria,” audition footage of actress Ivana Baquero, introductions for The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, deleted scenes from The Devil’s Backbone, a featurette on the portrayal of the Spanish Civil War in The Devil’s Backbone, animated comics fleshing out the mythology of Pan’s Labyrinth, thumbnail sketches, storyboards, stills galleries, trailers and TV spots.
This is one of 2016’s finest Blu-ray box sets: a beautiful presentation of three exceptional films. Highly recommended.