Watch them and weep, Tolkien-ites.
The Hobbit could have been this good. Guillermo del Toro was working off-mainstream for Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the trio of films in this Blu-ray boxset.
The Mexican auteur has always sustained his stamp across arty and big-budget projects, merging fantasy and reality with raw feeling.
Like Cronenberg, hybridisation thrills del Toro: genres, registers, worlds, characters and creatures bleed into one another with a transformative power.
That hybrid spirit was almost fully formed in his debut feature, Cronos.
In this vampire variation, a clockwork gizmo passes between continents over centuries, housing an insect that renews its host’s youth while stoking blood-lust; old antique seller (Federico Luppi) succumbs to its pleasures and poisons.
Magic and realism interweave via re-imagined genre staples and nods to Mexican culture.
Tenderness and terror entwine in the old fella’s love for his granddaughter, whose endangerment pre-empts the themes of innocence and violence in later del Toro films.
Del Toro views Backbone and Labyrinth as brother and sister. “Rhyming” movies, they share poignancy and politics, savagery and sadness, men and monsters. Both open with wounded kids, signalling high-stakes fantasy, not children’s tales.
Set in 1939, in what del Toro calls “a microcosmos of the Spanish Civil War”, Backbone sees a boy (Fernando Tielve) in a desert orphanage menaced by an avaricious proto-fascist and a child’s ghost. Scary and visceral, it’s also elegant, elegiac.
Set five years on, Labyrinth layers a fable of choice versus blind obedience with the tale of a girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), moved with her mum to a fascist’s rural base, where an underworld presided over by a devious faun refracts over-ground horrors.
Heartfelt and horrifying, it’s a murky masterpiece with a clear moral thrust.
New faun rising
Del Toro levels reality and fantasy in story and style, much aided by Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography. The dust and flies shrouding Backbone’s ghost seem almost tangible.
In Labyrinth, the Fascist captain’s violence and the faun’s creaking limbs feel equally tactile, while the two worlds “contaminate” (del Toro’s metaphor) each other via colour palette.
Blu-ray boosts beauties and brutalities, bestowing Backbone’s desert vistas and clammy spaces with a notably lush appearance.
Labyrinth brims with material including a great interview with Mark Kermode and del Toro’s impassioned commentary. That passion defines del Toro.
The Hobbit’s loss is Mountains Of Madness’ gain.
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