Show The Monster Guillermo del Toro’s quest to get amazing creatures onscreen. by Daniel Zalewski

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Del Toro, whose films include
Del Toro, whose films include “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” has amassed in a house outside Los Angeles an enormous collection of horror iconography. “All this stuff feeds you back,” he says.

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In 1926, Forrest Ackerman, a nine-year-old misfit in Los Angeles, visited a newsstand and bought a copy of Amazing Stories—a new magazine about aliens, monsters, and other oddities. By the time he reached the final page, he had become America’s first fanboy. He started a group called the Boys’ Scientifiction Club; in 1939, he wore an outer-space outfit to a convention for fantasy aficionados, establishing a costuming ritual still followed by the hordes at Comic-Con. Ackerman founded a cult magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and, more lucratively, became an agent for horror and science-fiction writers. He crammed an eighteen-room house in Los Feliz with genre memorabilia, including a vampire cape worn by Bela Lugosi and a model of the pteranodon that tried to abscond with Fay Wray in “King Kong.” Ackerman eventually sold off his collection to pay medical bills, and in 2008 he died. He had no children.

But he had an heir. In 1971, Guillermo del Toro, the film director, was a seven-year-old misfit in Guadalajara, Mexico. He liked to troll the city sewers and dissolve slugs with salt. One day, in the magazine aisle of a supermarket, he came upon a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland. He bought it, and was so determined to decode Ackerman’s pun-strewed prose—the letters section was called Fang Mail—that he quickly became bilingual.

Del Toro was a playfully morbid child. One of his first toys, which he still owns, was a plush werewolf that he sewed together with the help of a great-aunt. In a tape recording made when he was five, he can be heard requesting a Christmas present of a mandrake root, for the purpose of black magic. His mother, Guadalupe, an amateur poet who read tarot cards, was charmed; his father, Federico, a businessman whom del Toro describes, fondly, as “the most unimaginative person on earth,” was confounded. Confounding his father became a lifelong project.

Before del Toro started school, his father won the Mexican national lottery. Federico built a Chrysler-dealership empire with the money, and moved the family into a white modernist mansion. Little Guillermo haunted it. He raised a gothic menagerie: hundreds of snakes, a crow, and white rats that he sometimes snuggled with in bed. Del Toro has kept a family photograph of him and his sister, Susana, both under ten and forced into polyester finery. Guillermo, then broomstick-thin, has added to his ensemble plastic vampire fangs, and his chin is goateed with fake blood. Susana’s neck has a dreadful gash, courtesy of makeup applied by her brother. He still remembers his old tricks. “Collodion is material used to make scars,” he told me. “You put a line on your face, and it contracts and pulls the skin. As a kid, I’d buy collodion in theatrical shops, and I’d scar my face and scare the nanny.”

Del Toro filled his bedroom with comic books and figurines, but he was not content to remain a fanboy. He began drawing creatures himself, consulting a graphic medical encyclopedia that his father, an unenthusiastic reader, had bought to fill his gentleman’s library. Del Toro was a good draftsman, but he knew that he would never be a master. (His favorite was Richard Corben, whose drawings, in magazines such as Heavy Metal, helped define underground comics: big fangs, bigger breasts.) So del Toro turned to film. In high school, he made a short about a monster that crawls out of a toilet and, finding humans repugnant, scuttles back to the sewers. He loved working on special effects, and his experiments with makeup grew outlandish. There is a photograph from this period of del Toro, now overweight, transformed into the melting corpse of a fat woman; his eyeballs drip down his cheeks like cracked eggs. (“It’s a gelatine,” he recalled. “It looks messy, but it’s all sculpted.”)

He attended a new film school, the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Cinematográficos, in Guadalajara, and after graduating, in 1983, he published a book-length essay on Alfred Hitchcock. (Discussing “The Birds,” del Toro notes that “in the terror genre, an artist, unbound by ‘reality,’ can create his purest reflection of the world—the cinematic equivalent of poetry.”) In 1985, he launched Necropia, a special-effects company, making low-end bogeymen for films being shot in Mexico City. “Producers would call me on Friday and say, ‘We need a monster on Tuesday,’ ” he said. In 1993, he released his first feature, “Cronos,” about a girl whose tenderness for her grandfather deepens after he becomes a vampire. The girl has her abuelo sleep in a toy box, not a coffin, and pads it with stuffed animals. The grandfather doesn’t want to kill, and his predicament is captured with grim humor; at one point, he licks the results of a nosebleed off a bathroom floor.

“Cronos” won an award at Cannes, and del Toro began working in Hollywood, where monster design was in a torpid state. The last major period of innovation dated back to 1979, when the Swiss artist H. R. Giger unveiled his iconic designs for Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” The titular beast’s head resembles a giant dripping phallus, and for years afterward monster designers emulated Giger’s lurid sliminess. In 1982, the effects technicians Stan Winston and Rob Bottin slathered the spastic creatures of “The Thing” with Carbopol, a polymer used in personal lubricants; four years later, in “The Fly,” Jeff Goldblum’s skin sloughs off, revealing the gelatinous insect within.

Del Toro embraced the cliché with his first studio feature, “Mimic” (1997), in which oozing giant insects overtake the New York subway system. But his subsequent monsters were strikingly original, combining menace with painterly beauty. Starting in 2004, he made two lush adaptations of the “Hellboy” comic-book series, which is about a clumsy horned demon who becomes a superhero and battles monsters. The vicious incisors of “tooth fairies” were offset by wings resembling oak leaves; the feathers of a skeletal Angel of Death were embedded with blinking eyes that uncannily echoed the markings on a peacock. A del Toro monster is as connected to a succubus in a Fuseli painting as it is to the beast in “Predator.” His films remind you that looking at monsters is a centuries-old ritual—a way of understanding our own bodies through gorgeous images of deformation.