Secret Blades and Exiled Princes: The Symbols of Guillermo del Toro

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Almost two decades before the titanic Robot vs Monster fights of Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro was making waves as the enfant terrible of the Spanish-speaking horror world. Considered by many to be the last true auteur (the right honourable Tarantino aside), del Toro cut his teeth with a combination of dark whimsy and explosive violence, drawing on both traditional fairy tales and more contemporary horror stories to craft a mythology for a new generation. On a personal note, my dad actually made me turn the TV  off  after watching the opening of Blade II, forcing me to creep downstairs after midnight and drink in all the blood-spewing, face-chomping, Wesley-Snipes-Ass-Kicking carnage that I could handle.

In fact, del Toro would eventually become so prolific that his films were the subject of an all-day festival at Stockport’s Plaza Theatre, hosted by Grimm Up North. By itself, a foreign director finding any acclaim abroad is almost unheard of, but to become so insidiously watchable that a small town in north-west England hosts an entire festival in your honour borders on the downright insane.

But after watching four of his films back-to-back (Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and the aforementioned Blade II), I noticed several weird, almost bizarrely specific narrative threads woven through his work that a film-obsessed 12-year-old-me somehow missed. So, being the film-obsessed 23-year-old that I’ve become, I felt the borderline-compulsive need to document these cinematic oddities to see if others agree and prove that I’m actually compos mentis at my upcoming court appearance. Here’s the breakdown:

Knives

Although one of the more obvious reoccurrences in his films, del Toro really does have a thing for bladed weaponry. The knife-handled cane in Cronos, the folding blade stolen from Jaime in The Devil’s Backbone (later used to kill the kindly teacher Conchita) and the entirety of Blade II, in case the name wasn’t enough to give it away. Even in Pan’s Labyrinth there are three knives that are not only present, but absolutely essential to the plot: the Captain’s Razor, the maid’s kitchen knife and the sacrificial dagger held by the eponymous Faun, not to mention Pacific Rim, which could be aptly summarised as ‘Giant Robot that should have used the sword earlier’.

But why? In academic terms (stay with me here, it pays off), the knife is equated with the phallus, i.e. the penis, i.e. masculine authority, due largely to its shape, penetrative abilities and the fact that it’s possessed almost exclusively by men. But, of all the examples listed above, only a handful of people who actually use knives survive the movie: the maid Mercedes in Pan’s Labyrinth, Blade, and Raleigh Becket/Mako Mori, Pilots of the Gypsy Danger. What do a woman, a black man and a male/female pairing have in common? The fact that none of them are (singular) white men, the characters who would usually wield the knives and thus, by extension, the authority. It seems that, in this way, del Toro structures his movies to take power away from white men (a number amongst which he is counted) and instead hand the authority and the narrative to those who normally go without.

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Thread in the mouth/Needles in the hand

While it isn’t surprising that horror movies should contain, y’know, horror, it is weird that del Toro’s focuses so specifically on hands and mouths. I first noticed this commonality in two particular scenes, one in Cronos and the other in Pan’s Labyrinth. In the first, the antiques dealer Jesús is presumed dead and, as part of the embalming process, has his upper lip stitched shut, only for him to later awaken and yank out the threads. While stitching is common during the embalming process, it’s a weird detail to give two scenes of your debut film over to. It’s less weird (or more weird) when you consider Pan’s Labyrinth, specifically the scene in which the Captain, having been humiliated and having his face lashed open, painstakingly stitches his cheek back. Later (Spoiler Alert) the Captain dies, shot through the opposite cheek and leaving an improbably small and neat-looking bullet wound. Combined with all the strange and creepy mouth stuff going on in FX’s The Strain, I think it’s fair to say that that del Toro has a pretty weird perspective on that orifice.

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Although this is less clear, there’s also a recurring theme of hands being penetrated by needles. Although most clearly exemplified by the Cronos device, a metal scarab that latches onto its users hand and stabs them with six razor-sharp legs, it can also be seen in Blade II, when the vampire Nyssa has to sacrifice some of her blood to enter the vampire hideout. It becomes even weirder when you consider that del Toro didn’t write the script for Blade II, so the similarities between the two devices would seem to be more than coincidental and, when watched alongside the ‘broken hand torture’ in Pan’s Labyrinth, I feel like we could take a pretty good guess at what Guillermo del Toro’s nightmares look like.

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The return of the Prince in exile

After watching any del Toro film, it seems pretty evident that the man loves fairy tales. So we shouldn’t be surprised that royalty is a constant theme in his work. Including a royal family is an easy way to make a story seem more fantastic, hearkening back to an earlier, less developed time in the world’s history which seems a lot more mystical than IPhones and Facebook. Specifically, the del Toro films that include royalty are Pan’s Labyrinth, Blade II and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. However, unlike most fairy tales (in which the Prince usually returns to claim his bride or kingdom), del Toro’s Princes tend to inspire more fear than confidence, bringing only violence and death to their subjects. Working backwards, Prince Nuada, of Hellboy II, returns from his self-imposed exile to destroy humanity and take back the world for the elves. This is actually a pretty interesting paradigm: del Toro himself is openly opposed to institutional structures, like the monarchy, but the humans in Hellboy represent industry, another institution, seemingly implying that while del Toro himself is opposed to industrialisation, he acknowledges that it is a necessary evil that keeps the world spinning. When you consider as well that the Golden Army destined to destroy humanity is also entirely mechanical, Hellboy II seems like less of a fantasy comic book adaptation and more of a fable about the tightrope the world is walking between progress and self-destruction.

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The next film, Blade II, features another Prince and another struggle to control the future through industry, this time through genetic modification rather than industry. Jared Nomak, ‘son’ of the Vampire Lord Eli Damaskinos and de facto Prince of the Vampire nation, is actually a genetically-modified super-being who makes no distinction between Vampires and Humans as prey. Recognising the titular Blade as a kindred spirit, both as harbingers of the future, cursed with a Frankenstein complex, he seeks to destroy the Vampires who bore him into a living hell. However, as he bears the weight of defending humanity and recognising the threat that Nomak will eventually pose, Blade destroys him, leaving himself as the only avenue to the promised world to come. Again, Blade II serves as an interesting dichotomy and a potential window into del Toro’s perspective; Blade is the only black character and is the hero, and the vampires (with the exception of Donnie Yen) are all unambiguously Caucasian. However, as half human, half vampire, Blade represents a compromise between two extremes, implying that del Toro might believe an intersectional approach to humanity, grounded in monarchism and white elitism, will ultimately doom all life.

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The final character with royal heritage is Ofelia, also known as Princess Moana. Supposedly the reborn soul of the Princess of the Underworld, Ofelia is tasked with completing three challenges before she may return to her ancestral home; retrieve a key from the belly of a giant toad, find a sacred dagger in a beast’s lair, and sacrifice her own life before spilling innocent blood. It’s here that del Toro breaks with his formula, making the exiled royalty a redeemable character. In both other examples, arrogance or destruction tainted the royal family, making them unfit to rule. Ofelia, however, must listen to the will of others before she can be allowed to return, and is shown as a victim of circumstance throughout the entire film, earning her agency through overcoming adversity. Again, this could be taken as a very clear message by del Toro; our rulers must not be of some archaic institution, but must come from the people themselves, and only after proving their worthiness. And, in typical del Toro style, this fitness to rule is not wielded by white men, like Nuada or Nomak, but by Ofelia, an innocent little girl who got lost in the woods and who was ultimately killed by an avatar of the men she was destined to rule.

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What do you think? Are there any symbols we missed? Tweet @completelywrite or @mancunianelliot, or follow us on Facebook at Writeabouteverything.co.uk.

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