Guillermo del Toro is unapologetically a genre guy. His fascinations and fingerprints are all over films and books made with a deep love for sci-fi, fantasy, action and — not least — horror. But unlike most genre filmmakers, he brings an artistic flair that is so distinctive that his work nearly always transcends its genre trappings. With shrewd Halloween timing, HarperCollins has published Guillermo del Toro Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections, and Other Obsessions, and it promises to give fans unprecedented access to the ideas and inspirations behind del Toro’s most iconic imagery, scariest monsters, and most persistent thematic fixations. In that sense, it’s like a 256-page brochure for a tour of del Toro’s “Bleak House,” the home he keeps outside Los Angeles that’s jammed with the truckloads of arcane paraphernalia he’s collected over the decades. It may be the most organic haunted house ever created — not unlike the dark recesses of its owner’s mind.
The forty-nine-year-old Mexican visionary has published before. He co-authored a trilogy of vampire novels — The Strain, The Fall and The Night Eternal — with Chuck Hogan in recent years, and there have been several companion books to his movies that focused on design, art direction, and make-up. But this new volume is unique in that it’s curated personally by Del Toro from his voluminous personal stashes, journals and film diaries and is thus intended to explain the mysterious process by which he has fabricated such distinct creatures and worlds. A detailed 2011 New Yorker piece by Daniel Zalewski laid out the foundations of del Toro’s creative obsessions in a childhood defined by the peculiar as much as by privilege. As with many great future spookers, del Toro parlayed his early yen for gory low-tech effects into a start in the movie business as a make-up artist. But by the time he hit thirty, he had written and directed his fantastical first film, “Cronos,” which won a prize in Cannes and swept awards in his home country. The film set a precedent for the originality del Toro would bring to storytelling and production design in a genre context.
Del Toro has managed to showcase his visual ingenuity even in Hollywood horror-action hybrids such as “Mimic,” “Blade II,” “Hellboy,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” and “Pacific Rim.” But his wondrous and scary palette has stood out most distinctly in homegrown productions such as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” both of which employed a kind of horror storytelling that takes place outside of the traditional. The Oscar-winning “Pan’s Labyrinth” in particular showed just how inventive his designs and concepts are, marrying a Spielbergian focus on a child in danger with the cruel darkness of fairy tales.
Unlike peers Peter Jackson and David Fincher, del Toro apparently has no plans to stretch beyond his genre playground. Though his decade-long effort to adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness seems to have been permanently scuttled in the wake of the similarly themed “Prometheus,” he has half a dozen other genre projects in development as a writer, director and/or producer. These include “The Haunted Mansion” for Disney; adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; the original horror film “Crimson Peak,” which is scheduled to start filming in February; and sequels to “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy.” Despite his filmmaking success and exalted status among the geek crowd, del Toro retains an unmatched enthusiasm for sharing his avalanche of ideas with fans (he's doing an event for the book Nov. 4 at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in NYC). This new Cabinet of Curiosities, which includes contributions from James Cameron, Neil Gaiman, and John Landis, reveals the DNA of the beasts that have crawled out of del Toro’s dreams and provides a sneak peek at monsters yet to come.