Guillermo del Toro, Horror and Dark Fantasy Master Level: Epic

Image of scarab from CronosOne of the directors that I am always excited to see something new from is Guillermo del Toro. His films always seem to manage to strike a deep chord with me. There is a mixture of fantasy, horror, and beauty that is undeniably addictive. I think the first film of his that I saw was Cronosabout a delightfully creepy piece of scarab jewelry that likes to latch onto people and suck out their blood. (Interestingly enough, this only increased my interest in scarabs.) In return, it provides youth, but of course there is always a price for that sort of thing. And, in this case, there is someone else who wants the cronos device. Murder and mayhem ensue.

My favorite del Toro film, though, is The Devil’s Backbone, which I don’t Image from The Devil's Backbonethink many people know about. It may be because this is foreign language film, and I think that they can often be overlooked. This, however, is one of the best ghost stories that I think I’ve ever seen. The setting for this film is an orphanage in the Spanish War. Carlos is the newest boy and, guided by a ghostly presence, stumbles upon a secret. This movie is scary. The lighting and cinematography is perfect, as always in del Toro films, and the ghost boy is just really creepy looking. However, the feeling of abandonment and desolation that is communicated by the setting and the theme of the orphanage just add to the overall atmosphere.

Image from Pan's LabyrinthPan’s Labyrinth another foreign language film, which won three Oscars — is what really made del Toro popular. I love this movie, too. It shows off del Toro’s mastery of the dark fantastic at it’s best. From the grotesquely beautiful creatures that populate the fantasy world, to the stark, bleak realism of Ofelia’s existence in the household of her fascist stepfather, this movie is dark beauty. It’s an interesting take on Shakespeare, too. In this film, though, Ofelia’s fantasy world becomes visible to the viewer. We are able to see her reality and understand her attempt to escape and her hopes for an alternative life in which she is valued and loved.

In ventures into the mainstream, del Toro was successful in directing Mimic, with that creepy bug/man monster. I’ve watched that movie at least five times just for the thrill of horror at the scene where the darkness shrouded profile of a man morphs into something less than human. Shudder. He also directed the first Image from Hellboy 2two Hellboy films, and has been announced as the director for a third. These movies are an unbelievably fun blend of comedy and dark fantasy. Both films showcase the same interesting and haunting monsters that have begun to define del Toro, but the second film — Hellboy II: The Golden Army — which includes interactions with the dark fey and the fantastical underworld, really showcases the beauty I associate with a del Toro film. The lighting is always perfect for the scenes, and I especially like the depictions of the underworld characters and settings.

In addition to directing great films, there have also been several “Guillermo del Toro Presents” films that have been successful. These are typically films in which he has been involved as a producer, and this label has begun to be a good advertisement for the type of film to expect, since they do a great job of representing the dark fantastical and horrific that del Toro uses in his own work. The most recent of these was Mama, which twisted the lengths to which a mother would go to “care” for her children. Before that there was Don’t Be Afraid of the Darkwhich provided me with some very good reasons to be afraid of the dark and avoid exploring small, enclosed spaces. This is a movie that shows in detail how all of the bad fairy tales can definitely come true and that the fairy creatures might not really be so nice and beautiful as we have previously been led to believe. Additionally, it is proven (once again!) that a cheaply obtained decrepit mansion is to be avoided at all costs.

But, before either of these, was yet another foreign language film that I haven’t heard many people talk about called The Orphanage. I think this is possibly one of the most haunting films Image from The Orphanagethat I have ever seen in my life. I own the film and have not been encouraged to rewatch it — the memories are enough. The plot focuses on a couple and their young son who have purchased a large house (yep, creepy large house at a bargain!) near the ocean. They intend to use the house as an orphanage for disabled children. However, on opening day, a child with a strange baglike mask over its face appears, disrupting the opening celebration and terrorizing the mother. Subsequently, her young son goes missing. The way that the story plays out is unexpected to say the least. Seriously, I think this one scarred me a little! (However, I would still definitely recommend it!)

So, with my love of del Toro and del Toro Presents films, I was excited to find the trilogy of Cover of The Strainbooks written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. The Strain takes the pandemic and vampire apocalypse tales and adds a twist. Vampires have have arrived, taken over, and begun capturing humans and creating farms to ensure that they have enough blood to feed themselves. These books focus on how this depressing state of events starts, progresses (The Fall), and then comes to an end (The Night Eternal). These books are dark, like the vampire version of The Walking Dead. Humans have been reduced to a bare minimum of survivors and are resorting to eating cat food and, gulp, rats. These vampires definitely don’t “sparkle” and they are not busy becoming rock stars, they are organized and focused on taking over the world and completely enslaving the human race. We see a rag-tag team of heroes try to take on these monsters, and there is plenty of violence, blood, and gore. I definitely liked these books, but there was none of the redeeming beauty, dark as it may be, that we see in del Toro’s films. There is a blanket of hopelessness that covers these stories, and they were not a trilogy that I could have read quickly, one right after the other. So … great horror! It looks like there are plans for a TV mini-series in the works, so we may see The Strain on the screen soon. I highly recommend checking out the books first, though.

Also, don’t miss del Toro’s take on The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror couch gag!

Patient Zero: Fast-Paced Zombie Action!

Look, I think that everybody loves zombies at this point, right? Well, at least it seems that way – I mean they are everywhere! They have even invaded the timeless classics, like Pride and Prejudice. Cover of Patient ZeroI’ve had Jonathan Maberry‘s Patient Zero for a while, and, due to some time off of work recently, finally had time to pick it up and enjoy it.

This book was made for me. I not only love the horror genre, but also really enjoy reading espionage thrillers. Maberry has done a great job of combining both genres. Joe Ledger is an above-average cop, excited about going to Quantico to begin his FBI training, when he is “solicited” by a deep black group for a special project. Zombies are being weaponized for world destruction, and after proving his skills against “patient zero” Joe is brought in to help fight the plague.

I think that the bar on zombie movies was really raised by 28 Days Later, where we were introduced to the fast zombie.

Fast zombies

The slow-witted shuffling ones were bad enough, but to have the threat suddenly move, and swarm, faster almost than a human was a recipe for panic. Maberry takes the bar up another notch because these zombies are being experimented on and the infection refined for increased rapidity of change time. Time from being bitten to becoming a zombie is decreased to a rate that promises worldwide infection within days. The possibility of an antidote is dangled tantalizingly, but the fast-change time complicates the potential for administering something like this. Joe and his team are under incredible stress to solve the problem, and the complexity of the situations that move the plot forward were well-planned and definitely made me keep turning the pages.

This is the first work by Maberry that I have read since the trilogy that began with Ghost Cover of Ghost Road BluesRoad BluesI was pleasantly surprised by this trilogy, which has many of the common horror tropes, but manages to put some different and interesting twists into the mix. I think that if you are someone who enjoys Stephen King, then you would like these books. They center on a comic book owner in the town of Pine Deep who gets mixed up in a seriously scary situation. The town is best known for its Halloween celebrations each year, but soon becomes the center of a battle between good and evil. There is an otherworldly blues player (complete with a busted up guitar on his back) who must face up against an ancient evil that has been buried deep in a dark part of the forest for years and years. This isn’t their first battle, of course, and many others are pulled into the fray as they fight it out. I think my favorite part is the re-creation of the ancient evil. There are both vampiric and werewolf tendencies, along with some paranormal aspects. It’s a true monster built from various nightmares. The character development in these books is well done and the situations, while familiar, are still made fresh and interesting. There is good reason why Maberry won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel with this story.

The remaining two books in the trilogy, Dead Man’s Song and Bad Moon Rising, don’t slack off. I have the feeling (and it may be because I read it somewhere) that Maberry actually wrote all of them at once, as if they were one really long work, and then broke them up into three books for publication. This would also seem likely due to the promptness with which they were published, each of them coming out very close to a year after the last. I remember devouring these as they came out and then having to wait until summer for the next one. Fortunately, if you haven’t read Maberry yet, you can grab all three in the trilogy (and maybe even Patient Zero) and devour them at once!