“The reason I create monsters and love them is that I think they speak to a very deep, spiritual part of ourselves. It is my most cherished desire that as you leave the exhibition, the monsters follow you home and that they live with you for the rest of your life.” – Guillermo Del Toro
It’s not every day that you get to spend your morning ogling a gigantic dangling Frankenstein head or a life-sized replica of The Elephant Man, but that’s just the magic that happens whenever Guillermo Del Toro lets us into his mind. The occasion prompting my surreal and monster-filled morning for CGM was a preview of the AGO’s latest exhibition Guillermo Del Toro: At Home With Monsters (running from September 30, 2017-January 7, 2018). It’s a glimpse into the vast collection of monster props and paraphernalia that the Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy director has accumulated over his life. Some are from his movies; many are from his personal collection.
For years the collection was a private inspiration, filling a guest home known as Bleak House that the filmmaker would disappear into to dream up his grand and gothic projects. Now, a special selection of items from Bleak House have been curated into a strange and damn impressive art exhibition. It premiered in Los Angeles and toured elsewhere, but the final stop in Toronto’s AGO feels oddly appropriate. After all, this is the city that Del Toro has called home since shooting Pacific Rim and the land that spawned, inspired, and housed David Cronenberg and certainly welcomes any masters of the macabre with open tentacles.
The preview day began with an appearance and moderated conversation from Del Toro himself, appearing onstage alongside curator Jim Sheddon and Rue Morgue magazine editor Andrea Subissati. Del Toro was his usual jovial and insightful self, rattling off about everything from the reasons behind his collection (“I’m not really a collector or a completest or a hoarder. I really created this altar or church for me to go and activate my spiritual life and imagination.”) to the darkness of classic Disney films represented in his collection through vintage production art work (“Some of the scariest things that you’ll ever be exposed to are in Bambi. My collection is mostly Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, and Pinocchio. Pinocchio, by the way, is a derivation of Frankenstein. He is a character born without a soul who discovers a notion of what it is to be human and along the way becomes a boy. So they are connected for me.”).
Yet, perhaps the most insightful and poignant thoughts he shared were the connection between monsters and humanity, which I’ll share here in full because it’s certainly worth considering.
“The beauty of monsters is that by their mere existence, they create the living different and the living other. It’s a chance to make peace with your darker side. Most people negate or demonize the darkness in themselves rather than trying to examine it or embrace it. Monsters are a way to make peace with the other and accept it,” he remarked and later added, “If you learn that we are all imperfect and that’s what we can achieve, you find peace. If you judge yourself and others by the standards of perfection? That’s infinite and unending torture. There’s a philosophy in Japan that it’s impossible for a man to have everything, but it’s perfectly reasonable to have nothing. I think the same thing can be said about perfection. No one can be perfect. Imperfect we all can be. I think that’s what the exhibit tries to do with art. There is beauty in the grotesque and grotesque in beauty, it’s a yin and yang as a unit.“
With that thoughtful monster nourishment out of the way we were let into the exhibit—and it was absolutely extraordinary. Statues and production art from Del Toro’s own films obviously figured prominently. Upon entering patrons are greeted by a life-sized statue of The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth starring you down from the eyes in the palms of his elongated hands. Behind him was a dark box containing the floating ghost from The Devil’s Backbone in a creepy chamber that’s easy to miss, yet impossible to forget. Elsewhere the figure of Death from Hellboy 2 loomed large. The faun from Pan’s Labyrinth appears later with looming jazz hands for all the good boys and girls. There were further props and costumes from Hellboy, Crimson Peak, and others scattered about. Those who adore the specifically twisted imagination of the Mexican auteur will not be disappointed by the sheer volume of material from his films on display.
Yet, the collection is hardly limited to Del Toro’s own work. This exhibit is pulled from his Bleak House of inspirations after all. It would be a bit much of the filmmaker decided to surround himself with his own creations all the time. The bulk of the material comes from other films and inspirations. The whole exhibition is organized into sections defined by themes. They vary from broad topics like “Insects” and “Childhood” to more thoughtfully arranged thematic collections like “Death and the Afterlife” or “Outsiders”. Some offered insight into Del Toro’s unique creative process, like a recreation of a room in a constant rainstorm with sound effects, window-shaped screens of storming imagery, and a life sized statue of Edgar Allen Poe enjoying the morbidly dark space. Del Toro admits in some of the plaques that he uses that unique space to write as it inspires him. Since dark and stormy nights don’t tend to run on cue with screenwriting deadlines, he’s found a way to create the environment for himself 24 hours a day. Read into that what you will.
Nerds of all types will find something to tickle their fascinations within the exhibit. There’s a corner wall filled floor to ceiling with vintage comic books and original artwork from such comic luminaries as R. Crumb and the late great Bernie Wrightson. The mask from Brian De Palma’s cult classic The Phantom Of The Paradise rests near a death mask of the actual Boris Karloff. That classic Frankenstein looms large, given an entire section with multiple statues and a stunning massive sculpture of the monster’s head (if nothing else, the exhibition proves that Del Toro desperately needs to be given the opportunity to make a film from Mary Shelley’s classic as we are long overdue for a reinterpretation and it’s clear no filmmaker loves the material more deeply). Elsewhere, The Elephant Man stands next to statues of iconic members of Todd Browning’s Freaks, with H.P. Lovecraft planted around the corner. The experience is overwhelming for those who adore the history of the horror and monster movie genre that Del Toro holds so dear. He’s curated a love letter to the art and artists who inspired him alongside the work he created to add to the history of the genre. It’s all rather remarkable.
Guillermo Del Toro: At Home With Monsters is a beautiful, fascinating, and even mildly haunting exhibit that fills the AGO with something truly special. There are thousands of pieces of art on display, each holding significance to this particular master of horror. Collectively, the exhibit isn’t just a history of monsters in pop culture, but an exploration of what those images mean both to Del Toro and the wider cultural landscape as a whole. It’s not just a collection of creepy artefacts and oddities, but an exploration of how they reflect certain sides of humanity and how if we allow ourselves to engage with the material beneath the surface, we can see beauty and acceptance in creations often considered grotesque. It’s a beautiful ode to the artistry of horror and Guillermo Del Toro that I can’t hope to properly capture in these words and pictures I compiled after the giddy head rush of wandering through the exhibit. This is something that you really have to experience for yourself to truly appreciate and anyone near Toronto with a sweet tooth for the dark and macabre arts owes themselves a visit to this special exhibit. There’s something here that stretches beyond mere appreciation for Del Toro and horror. To discover what that is, you’ll have to see it for yourself.
Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Pill’s take on Kingsmen: The Golden Circle, American Made, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!
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