The Criterion Collection's lavish boxed set TRILOGÍA DE GUILLERMO DEL TORO combines Blu-rays of the director's three pre-CRIMSON PEAK gothic horror films in a gorgeous package (inside and out).
Del Toro's feature debut CRONOS has the secret to eternal life fall into the hands of "young at heart" antiques dealer Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi, COCAINE WARS) when he discovers a mechanical golden scarab automaton device that attaches itself to his hand and bestows upon him the feeling of being younger. Growing addicted to the device, he also finds himself becoming sensitive to light and developing a thirst for human blood. With his tango teacher wife Mercedes (Margarita Isabel, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE) too fixated on her own lost youth, his granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) is the sole confidante and witness to his addiction. Dying millionaire De la Guardia (Claudio Brook, THE CASTLE OF PURITY) has been searching for the device since discovering a manuscript belonging to medieval alchemist Fulcanelli (a pseudonymous twentieth century French alchemist here reimagined as having fled the inquisition to Mexico in the middle ages where he became the clockmaker of the Viceroy of Mendoza only to die four hundred years later when his heart was fatally pierced in a vault collapse). When he discovers that Jesus has the device, he sends his nephew Angel (Ron Perlman, HELLBOY) after it, and uses his knowledge of the device as leverage as Gris begins a strange and painful metamorphosis.
Although the theme of vampirism-as-addiction was not new by the mid-nineties, CRONOS is decidedly different "Mexican vampire film" from the more overtly gothic post-Hammer HORROR OF DRACULA fifties efforts Fernando Méndez and others from the sixties imported here by K. Gordon Murray and American International television. Luppi makes for a sympathetic vampiro, believably elderly yet young at heart in the opening, a suave, distinguished older gentleman during the middle, and then a pitiful wraith in the third act. While Perlman makes for an entertaining and quirky plastic surgery-obsessed heavy, Brook – whose Mexican credits include Luis Bunuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT and THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL along with Juan Lopez Moctezuma's 1970s gothic horror turns ALUCARDA and MANSION OF MADNESS – gives a wonderful performance as a cold and ruthless villain who turns out to be more pitiful than Gris for more concerned with extending his labored way of life rather than trying to enjoy what time he has left. The Cronos device – the gold shell and gear work of which surrounds a living larval insect that filters the blood of its user – is a fantastical touch spiking the film's natural world early on, with the industrial factory and De la Guardia's sterile isolation room taking on a certain gothic feel along with Aurora's playroom shack in which vampirized Gris sleeps inside a coffin-like toy chest with the girl's teddy bear. The religious symbolism is a bit heavy-handed but del Toro does describe CRONOS as his "lapsed Catholic film."
Released theatrically by October Films, CRONOS was released on tape by Vidmark in two editions: the film's original mix of English and English-subtitled Spanish dialogue and a full English dub. LionsGate put out a special edition DVD in 2003 for the film's tenth anniversary boasting an anamorphic transfer (good for the time but the edge enhancement and compression noise are now more evident on HD monitors), Spanish/English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo mixes, two audio commentaries with Del Toro and producers Bertha Navarro, Arthur Gorson & co-producer Alejandro Springall, an interview with Del Toro, and a making-of featurette. Originally released individually in 2010, Criterion's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen transfer is derived from a new 2K scan of the original camera negative, and it is a ravishing visual experience or a film that previously looked less visually extravagant compared to the digitally-augmented color palette of del Toro's later films. It is easy to forget that this is a nineties film and see it as brand new. The film's English/Spanish Dolby Stereo mix is presented here in two DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo options: with the original Spanish opening voice-over subtitled in English or an English version of the opening voice-over. The "about the transfer" section of the included book advises viewers to engage Dolby ProLogic decoding for the surround experience. The optional English subtitles are only available for the Spanish dialogue on both tracks.
Ported over from the LionsGate disc are the English audio commentary with del Toro and the English-subtitled commentary with producers Arthur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro & co-producer Alejandro Springall (the latter two in Spanish with English subtitles). Del Toro discusses the film's different origins for vampirism as his imagining of the alchemical fifth essence which transforms biomatter into its purest form (metal into gold, flesh into immortality), the color coding of the film in alchemical colors, the layers of vampirism (mythical, religious, political), and the inspiration for the bug inside the Cronos device as being inspired by the sixties fad of "living jewelry" including necklaces with live beetles. The producer track finds Gorson, Navarro, and Springall discussing how the film was unique to Mexican cinema of the period not only as a genre effort but also as a model of a truly independent private financing alternative to state funding that allowed del Toro complete control and the ability to realize all of his "obsessions" onscreen.
Starting off the video extras is del Toro's 1987 short film "Geometria" (6:27), loosely based on Frederic Brown's story "Zero in Geometry" in which a teenager invokes a demon to bring back his dead father and get him out of retaking a geometry exam, but it all comes at a price. In a video interview, Del Toro explains that the film was made in homage not in content but visually in admiration of Italian horror filmmakers Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, and Mario Bava, and that the Bava-esque blue and magenta gel lighting of the short lead to the amber/cyan color scheme of CRONOS. He also reveals that the short was not competed to his satisfaction until 2010 (when the interview was shot), having been dubbed into Spanish because he could not afford to create subtitles when the short was shown at the Guadalajara film festival in 1987. The reworked version here features an Italian Dolby Digital 5.1 track with del Toro dubbing all of the voices (including his own mother who plays the boy's mother) and optional English subtitles. In "Welcome to Bleak House" (10:14), del Toro gives us a video tour of his "man cave" which is designed as a series of "curiosity cabinet" rooms with separate libraries of the occult, art, and literature with vintage and custom artwork, Victorian automaton toys, movie props, and various curios which he likens to CRONOS in that it is an "exploded view of his mind."
The 2010 interview accompanying "Geometria" is extended here with more from del Toro (17:36) who reveals that there are a lot of things he loves about CRONOS but also faults that he would have liked to fix (he expresses a desire to remaster the film and audio, although it looks he did not touch the audio on the Blu-ray transfer). He discusses how the film first addresses his fascination with "decomposing or decomposed" familial relations (and how families either implode or unite in their imperfections), the juxtaposition of flesh and the mechanical, and making the monster figure less monstrous than the human characters. He describes the film as his "lapsed Catholic movie" in which the Cronos device creates stigmata on the protagonist, he resurrects after three days, and sacrifice himself. He also describes the difference between "eye candy" and "eye protein" in that the film's stylistic choices are all in support of the story, character, and themes. In his interview, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (12:36) recalls meeting del Toro when he was doing make-up effects on the film CABEZA DE VACA, and that his sister Bertha took the risk on del Toro's "Mexican vampire film" concept. He discusses at length how the film language originates in del Toro's own storyboards and notes rather than in the editing room out of coverage. Actor Perlman (7:25) recalls receiving a letter from Del Toro that flattered him with the director's seeming sincere affection for roles Perlman found embarrassing, and arriving in Mexico to discover that the film was going to be shot in Spanish even though he did not speak the language. He learned some of the lines in Spanish and recited them to del Toro who told him that his delivery was terrible, leading them to the concept of Angel being an American expatriate who spoke Spanish terribly on purpose out of his loathing for the country. An older interview with actor Luppi (5:25) finds him expounding on del Toro's genius and how the sets and locations used offered an actor everything needed to get a sense of each character. The disc also includes a stills gallery of sixty images and the film's theatrical trailer (1:29).
THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE asks the question "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." Dumped at an isolated orphanage for children of the communist "reds" after the death of his father at the front, young middle-class Carlos (Fernando Tielve, GOYA'S GHOSTS) finds himself on the outs with the other children – lead by older kid Jaime (Íñigo Garcés) – who live in fear of "the one who sighs", a phantasmal apparition that may be the ghost of student Santi (Junio Valverde, SHIVER) who disappeared the night an unexploded bomb landed in the school's courtyard. The teaching staff consists solely of headmistress Carmen (Marisa Paredes, THE SKIN I LIVE IN) and her pining colleague Dr. Casares (CRONOS' Luppi) who are more concerned with the advancing Nationalist Army and the future of Catalonia than a ghost that stalks the halls. Hunky former orphan turned caretaker Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega, OPEN YOUR EYES) wants to run off with maid Conchita (Irene Visedo, THE ANARCHIST'S WIFE) but not without the gold bars Carmen and Casares have hidden in the school for the revolutionary cause. Initially afraid of the ghost, Carlos must summon up his courage when the sighs turn to whispers of "many of you will die."
The first of two Del Toro films set during the Spanish Civil War, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE was a more personal and less compromised work after the usual Dimension Films/Weinstein recuts and reshoots for his American debut MIMIC (finally released in a semblance of its intended form fourteen years after its theatrical and home video releases). Although nods to SUSPIRIA in a horror film set at a boarding school inevitable – particularly the shadow that looms over a sleeping Carlos from behind a backlit sheet – THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE ultimately favors more old-fashioned ghost story sources not unlike native Spaniard Alejandro Amenabar's THE OTHERS made the same year. As Del Toro mentioned in his CRONOS interview, the film's human characters are ultimately more monstrous than the supernatural, contrasting the army's executions of rebels with the self-interest (desperate but nevertheless ruthless) of those who side with the reds as army advances. Ultimately a wronged ghost who can only be laid to rest by revenge story a la THE CHANGELING, the film is more interesting for its historical and political setting than the more overt supernatural aspects. The film's producers include CRONOS' Bertha Navarro as well as famed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almadovar (MATADOR) and his brother Augustin (BAD EDUCATION).
THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE was released on DVD in 2002 by Columbia Tri-star in an anamorphic transfer with commentary by Del Toro and DP Navarro and subsequently re-released by the company in 2004 in a special edition with a new solo Del Toro track and some new extras. Criterion's 2012 Blu-ray carried over the solo Del Toro track. The new 2K-mastered transfer from the 35mm negative is gorgeous, retaining Del Toro's favored amber-cyan lighting and filmic look (in contrast to the more aggressive color grading and re-grading of many contemporary films). The Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is more dimensional than directional for much of the film, drawing the viewer into the sounds of the school and countryside before goosing the ear. The optional English subtitles are without errors.
Extras start off with an optional introduction by del Toro (0:48) and the aforementioned commentary track. The lack of the del Toro/Navarro track seems unfortunate since del Toro discusses this later track as more of a ramble, but it is quite focused, starting with his desire to tell a gothic romantic tale in the Spanish Civil War setting and illustrating throughout the first act how the characters and setting embody the constants of the gothic genre with reference to Horace Walpole's "The Castle of Otranto" as well as Henry James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. Also carried over from the Sony DVD is the featurette "¿Que es un fantasma?" (27:18) looking at the production of the film with del Toro discussing his initial unsatisfactory treatment for the film written years before and the innovations brought to it by co-writer Antonio Trashorras, comments from Navarro and production designer César Macarrón (INTACTO) on the visual look, and cast members Luppi, Noriega, Parades, and Tielve on the emotional traps that bind the characters to the location. No EPK featurette is this, but it does try to cram quite a bit into a half-hour that is better explored in the disc's newer featurettes. Also carried over are the "Director’s Notebook" interactive feature (9:05), deleted scenes with optional audio commentary by del Toro (3:36), and the sketch-to-storyboard-to-screen featurette (12:02) as well as "Del Toro's Thumbnails" and the theatrical trailer (2:05).
New to the original Criterion Blu-ray is "Summoning Spirits" (13:47) in which del Toro expands upon his desire to transpose the gothic to the historical setting, and his attempt to turn Santi into a gothic ghost with its "broken doll" look of cracked porcelain, oxide tears, and plume of blood floating up from his head. He also discusses the technical challenge of keeping the ghost's pallor white in the film's sepia and steel blue lighting schemes. In "Spanish Gothic" (17:54) in which del Toro discusses the script's original Mexican incarnation and the unsuccessful attempt to transpose his original concept of what "the devil's backbone" is to Spain before rewriting it. He also discusses the similarities and differences between the film and PAN'S LABYRINTH (with the latter being his attempt to distill fairy tale elements into the historical setting rather than the gothic). More illuminating is "Designing THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE" (11:57), del Toro discusses the influence of comic artist Carlos Jimenez, who grew up as an orphan during the Spanish civil war, on the conceptual design of the film's settings and characters, as well as the design of the orphanage, the importance of wardrobe and character as compositional elements ("the face is a set"). He reveals that none of the design choices were left to chance, including the photographs of Jacinto's non-past which were composed of real historical photographs and Photoshop augmentations and the bomb's design to echo a pagan maternal figure to the children. Also new to the 2012 Blu-ray is "A War of Value" interview with scholar Sebastiaan Faber (14:07) which provides historical context of the Spanish Civil War to the film's backdrop.
PAN'S LABYRINTH is also set during the Spanish civil war with young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, THE NEW DAUGHTER) and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil, BELLE EPOQUE) arriving in the countryside to join fascist stepfather Colonel Vidal (Sergi López, WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY) at his post at an old mill where he is tasked with rooting out the guerillas hiding in the surrounding woods. Imaginative Ofelia is warned away from the nearby ancient ruined labyrinth by maid Mercedes (Maribel Verdú, Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN) but a praying mantis that she comes to believe is a fairy leads her to a faun (Doug Jones, ABSENTIA) who tells her that she is actually Princess Moanna who lost her memory when she escaped the underground kingdom to explore the human world. Charged with opening portals all over the world to enable her return, the faun presents her with three tasks to be completed before the next full moon in order to enable her return to the kingdom. First, she must obtain a golden key from a monstrous frog that lives in the base of an ancient fig tree in the woods; then she must obtain a dagger from the lair of "The Pale Man" (also Jones); and finally, she must spill innocent blood. Ofelia finds herself conflicted by the possibility to eternal life in a fairy tale kingdom and her fear for her sick mother and unborn brother as they are caught in between the ruthless Vidal and the guerilla factions poised to attack the mill. Although a companion piece to THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE as noted in the Blu-ray's introduction to that film, the Spanish Civil War setting, the little girl protagonist, and the paralleling of the fairies with the guerillas also draws comparison to another more famous genre-tinged Spanish Civil War film: Victor Erice's SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. Del Toro's style carries over his color coding and restricted palettes, greatly aided here by the melding of real and digital set elements while DDT's prosthetic and animatronic creations and the film's CGI ones put much Hollywood equivalents to shame. Performances are not overshadowed by the visual wonderment, with young Baquero ably supported by Verdú and Lopez (whose fascist villain is invested with some humane elements not unlike Jacinto in THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE), along with brief appearances by THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE's Tielve and Garcés as guerilla soldiers along with Luppi. Whereas THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE was co-produced by Pedro Almadovar, PAN'S LABYRINTH was co-produced by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (CHILDREN OF MEN).
Released in two-disc DVD, Blu-ray, and HD-DVD special editions right off the bat, New Line Cinema's PAN'S LABYRINTH benefited from a Del Toro-supervised transfer of the film and audio that was considered definitive at the time (the DVD transfers that appeared overseas first were not supervised by the director). Criterion's 2010 Blu-ray release as replicated here is derived from the original 2K digital intermediate with additional color correction by Del Toro to better envision the look of the film with better equipment. While the New Line disc was great for the time, it now looks somewhat "digital" if only next to the Criterion edition with the exteriors boasting a bit more depth and seemingly more variegation in color and texture. Audio options include DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and "optional" 7.1 surround options. Since the 7.1 track appeared on the New Line while 5.1 tracks appeared on the imports, one can assume that the 7.1 was either commissioned by New Line and the 5.1 was the original mix or that Del Toro has supervised a 5.1 mix for the still prevalent home entertainment surround sound system configuration. The optional English subtitles are without any obvious issues.
Ported over from the New Line editions is the audio commentary with del Toro in which he discusses the film's ties to THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE as well as how the changes wrought by 9/11 during the five year interval between the films are reflected in the five year interval between the 1939 setting of BACKBONE and the 1944 of PAN'S LABYRINTH. He posits Ofelia as a fusion of both Carlos and Jaime from the former film and Vidal as a fascist to Jacinto's proto-fascist, as well as the juxtaposition of fantasy and violence in this film. The new video extras start off with a brief introduction by del Toro (0:25) and "Del Toro and Funke" (39:21), a discussion between del Toro and novelist Cornelia Funke (THE THIEF LORD) who discuss the "virtues and defects" of fairy tales and the simplicity of the "power to declare" versus a "screenplay culture" that gets too bogged down in verisimilitude over emotional reality. As with THE DEVIL'S BACKGONE, del Toro's "Director's Notebook" interactive feature lets the viewer life through his sketchbook for the film with links to a few video pieces on concepts form the film. Actor Jones (25:38) reveals that he first became involved with del Toro when he was asked to don the bug suit for pick-up shots for MIMIC since the original shoot was done in Canada and the studio did not want to go through the trouble of flying the original suit performer in and doing the paperwork for him to work in the United States. He ended up playing Abe Sapien in the HELLBOY and was then contacted by del Toro as the only one capable of playing the faun in PAN'S LABYRINTH. He did not speak Spanish and there was a daunting amount of expository dialogue he had to deliver. While del Toro was okay with him just saying anything and being overdubbed, Jones felt he owed it both to the character and to child actress Baquero to learn the dialogue in Spanish. He discusses the faun suit and appliances, and highly of DDT. He also discusses playing the "Pale Man" and coming to the understanding that the character was an aspect of the faun even though the mannerisms were completely different. Throughout the interview, he conveys a warm working relationship with del Toro and does some amusing impressions of the director. Actress Baquero appears on the disc online in a video segment of her audition (2:55) for the film.
Ported over from the earlier editions are a quartet of documentaries starts off with "The Power of Myth" (14:24) in which del Toro discusses the simplicity and brutality of fairy tales, the danger of reductive analysis in discussing and paying homage to them, how the characters of the film embody types yet possess degrees of emotional complexity, and compares the film to "Little Red Riding Hood." In "Pan and the Fairies" (30:27), del Toro and the crew of DDT discuss the creation of the fantastic characters as original creations spun out of familiar ones without reference to other movie variations or comic book creations (and how del Toro knows he has picked the right collaborators by the types of artistic references they make). In "The Color and the Shape" (4:02), del Toro discusses the color coding of the film: reality in muted colors and jagged, rugged textures and the warm, uterine fantasy worlds. In "The Melody Echoes the Fairy Tale" (2:48), del Toro discusses the need for a simple lullaby melody to unite the score and the back-and-forth process of coming up with one with composer Javier Navarette (BYZANTIUM). Also ported over are prequel comic origin stories for "The Giant Toad" (0:42), "The Fairies" (0:32), "The Faun" (0:48), and "The Pale Man" (1:18) along with multi-angle comparisons of scenes from the film, a teaser, American theatrical trailer (which features no dialogue from the film), and seven TV spots. The 2010 Blu-ray of CRONOS came with a forty-two-page liner notes booklet featuring an essay by film critic Maitland McDonagh and excerpts from del Toro’s notes for the film, the 2012 Blu-ray of THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE came with a ten-page essay by Mark Kermode, and the Criterion Blu-ray featured an essay by Michael Atkinson. All of this material along with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, production notes, and original sketches by Guillermo del Toro and illustrators Carlos Giménez and Raúl Monge have been combined in a new hundred-page hardcover book included in the set. (Eric Cotenas)
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