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Guillermo Del Toro: monster mash

It’s a pity, really, that the word " horror” is so elastic that it extends to gore-and-torture movies, which should be rated by blood type, and also to the phantasmagorical films of Guillermo del Toro.

The Mexican-born filmmaker/writer/producer, who made his bones in special-effects makeup, crafts elegant and poignant monsters of complex character in movies such as “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and unleashes creatures of unexpected heart as well as fearsome mien in the “Hellboy” series. In the last few years, he’s added writer of novels to his list of job titles. With coauthor Chuck Hogan, he’s just published volume two of a modern vampire trilogy.

Children, with their qualities of wonder and vulnerability, carry many of Del Toro’s stories, but it’s monsters he says he loves. At the heart of it all is an imagination that finds inspiration and terror in everything from comic books to the Spanish Civil War — and, of course, the Halloween season.

What are you going to be on Halloween?

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A rotting zombie.

Halloween versus Day of the Dead — which do you like better?

[ Mexico] has a deeper gateway into the supernatural; we are not a country that believes in practical daily life.

Halloween and Day of the Dead — I really celebrate them as one single holiday. I love the idea that it is permitted for supernatural things to occur in daily life. To be honest with you, it’s the only [holiday] I have any interest in celebrating.

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Sadly, in Mexico, the All Saints’ Day aspect of it has faded into straight Halloween. I miss being able to show my daughters what it is to pay your respects to a grave and bring food and drink and spend the day in the cemetery.

And then there’s your Catholic upbringing, which populates your imagination.

All Saints’ Day and Day of the Dead often were celebrated next to the church, a huge market where they would sell rubber skulls, candy skulls, pottery skulls. So it was one and the same, the church and the holiday. They would sell insanely complex papier-mache demons and devils. Next to them, the carved saints or angels looked quite frankly boring. It’s easy to be praised for beauty. It’s very hard to be praised for creating something outlandish and terrible.

What is the role of fear in our psyches?

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It’s an ingrained fight-or-flight reflex that we don’t flex enough in real life, so we have to create artificial springs to flex it in fiction, sort of the rollercoaster-ride equivalent in storytelling. Fear in fiction plays that role.

On the other hand, fear [is] an instinct absolutely necessary to achieve some form of spiritual perspective. One can go on for hours about the absolutely intimidating aspects of Catholic lore — purgatory, hell, original sin, all those things that make a child’s life more terrifying. Fear of something unknown allows us to take a leap into faith.

Believing in supernatural things allows you to actually have a spiritual experience in a time when you cannot do that in a sort of uplifting way without sounding somewhat foolish. In a time when everybody’s texting, Facebooking, Twittering — they have GPS, they never get lost — all of a sudden, through horror fiction, you are allowed to suspend your disbelief.

In Greek drama the actual horror takes place offstage, so you just imagine it. Modern movies put it all on film. Why the difference?

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If you think of a horror film as a sort of hostage negotiation between the narrator and the audience, you know there is a lot of tension to not knowing what is going on inside the bank. But now and then the narrator has to shoot a hostage to prove that [he is] serious. If there is any genre where the audience goes in entirely antagonistic, it is horror. Because, like a carnival attraction, you go in saying, “I want to see them try and scare me.”

There are real horrors in the world, like the Spanish Civil War, a theme in your film “The Devil’s Backbone,” and the kidnapping of your own father, which ended with his release. How do you compare made-up horrors to those?

One can help us understand the other. I have been able to articulate a lot of what has shocked me and scared me in my life through the movies I do. To me, it’s not escapism; it’s actually the opposite of escaping — it’s staring those things straight in the eye and starting a dialogue with them.

Then do you make your films in part to understand yourself better?

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Not in part — entirely! “Hellboy I” or “Hellboy II” are ultimately as biographical to me as “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “The Devil’s Backbone.” I write the good guys and the bad guys with equal autobiographical intention; I recognize the best and the worst of my impulses in all of them.

In “The Fall,” the second book of your trilogy, are you then El Angel de Plata, the aging Mexican wrestler who fights evil?

Yes! It’s a character that I’ve been wanting to write since I was 15. I wanted to create a situation in fiction where you can actually say with a straight face that that’s the scene where the masked wrestler fights the [villains].

How do you decide what kind of monster is most effective?

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Each monster in my movies represents something different. “In Hellboy II,” it represents nature; it’s a life-giver and destroyer in equal measure. I love the way that the creature is terrifying and beautiful and fragile at the same time. On the other hand, a monster like the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” represents blind power, interested in eating and destroying innocence. Carvers of Gothic cathedrals understood: Monsters depend entirely on context.

The problem now is that we have very little interest in the spiritual world. The absolutely mundane inanity of aspirations nowadays — I almost think the real monster in our lives is reality TV. It’s disheartening that we have chosen to enthrone the mundane. Monsters require a larger degree of creation and imagination than realistic stuff.

When I read a horror book — say, by H.P. Lovecraft, one of your favorites — my imagination comes up with things scarier than anything I’ve seen onscreen.

Take one of his most famous books, “At the Mountains of Madness” [Del Toro is making it into a film]. He can create passages that are absolutely, calculatedly terrifying. [They] are telling you what to feel, but they’re not telling you how to paint it.

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I always say, one should not be afraid to show the monster; one should be afraid of showing the monster without knowing why you’re doing it. I am more fanciful about shooting something of daily life than I am when I’m shooting my monsters — I shoot them openly, because to me they are real creatures.

There are two ways to approach the genre. One, where you never show [the monsters] — that would get a lot more good press because it’s obviously subtle. But it’s much harder to be subtle when you frontally show the symbol. You would never shoot Robert De Niro and just hide him in the shadows the whole movie; to me, my monsters are actors, and I use them in the same way I would use an actor.

In “The Fall,” you write about human arrogance and inaction, and though the book is about vampires, that could sum up the cause of any human catastrophe, from global warming to nuclear proliferation. Did you mean it that way?

Absolutely. Being a Catholic, the hardest sin to grasp is pride. Lust or gluttony or sloth, they come from impulse. But pride has a numbing agent that makes you absolutely unaware that you’re being arro-gant. The Catholic conception of the devil is that the sin that brought him down was pride. I thought it would be great to show how proud we are. The first thing the vampires do in the third book is shut down all the power plants, because without electricity, half of our arrogance goes away. All this technology that we have — and in reality, when you blink, we are in the Middle Ages. Without electricity we are nothing, nothing.

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If we were pitted against our caveman ancestors, they’d beat us, hands down.

In a one-on-one battle? You bet. Part of the fascination with post-apocalyptic fantasy is the ridiculously basic pleasure in thinking that you would learn the true measure of the person — you would revert to some kind of easily readable barbarism — but I think this fantasy needs to be contested. I think in great pain and horrible moments the worst of humanity comes, and also the best.

Vampires are all the rage right now. Do we find monsters to suit the zeitgeist?

Without a doubt. We [first] understood the world through angels and demons. We needed to mythologize the light, the night, good, bad. We needed creatures that helped us systematize all the apprehension about the real world.

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Look at the modern American nightmare films. In the post-Vietnam era, [they] reflect the tensions and collapse of society and its institutions, and corruption of the family, in a way that was impossible to imagine even in the most avant-garde monster movie in the ‘50s.

And the huge vogue of chaste, romanticized vampires that we’re experiencing [now] comes from the absolute need to abandon ourselves to fantasies of commitment. The most sacred bond that exists between the vampire and its victim, that they are forever joined by blood, and undying fantasies where you never go home — it’s a strange version of Peter Pan.

Modern young readers who try to fantasize about romance without sounding ridiculous can do it more easily if they have the myth of vampires. I tell you, as strange as a vampire is, a committed relationship is even stranger, and rarer.

Do different cultures fear different things?

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Ultimately we have the same basic fears: the fear of death, the fear of hunger, the fear of being eaten. The way we deal with those fears culturally is very different, and depends entirely on the taboos of each society. Vampires in old Europe came in every imaginable form. A lot of undead corpses would enact mischief. There are famous vampiric cases where the only thing a corpse did was kick people’s behinds.

That was the “Three Stooges” vampire …

It was Shemp!

You’re like a scary version of Jung.

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He’s my hero! I always say if I have to choose between Jung and Freud for a long road trip, it would be Jung, without a doubt.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.It’s disheartening that we enthrone the mundane. Monsters require a larger degree of imagination.


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