During his surprisingly smooth transition from Spanish horror to mainstream comic book fare---with current and future projects suggesting he's not finished with either genre---maverick writer/director Guillermo del Toro has garnered a strong critical and commercial following during the last 20+ years. The Criterion Collection pays tribute to his singular work with the release of Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro, collecting three of his best films (the already-released Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, as well as Pan's Labyrinth) in a handsomely-designed boxed set.
Cronos (1993) is del Toro's first feature-length film, a visually stylish vampire horror story that he also wrote. Our protagonist of sorts is Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi, who appears in both other films in this collection), an antiques dealer who accidentally discovers eternal youth by way of a 400 year-old golden scarab entombed in a statue. The catch is that Gris now has a taste for human blood, and it doesn't take long for him to quench his thirst. The other catch is that someone else knows of the scarab's location and power: Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), a dying businessman who sends his nephew Angel (Ron Perlman, Hellboy) to retrieve it. Deliberately paced, visually inventive, occasionally disturbing, and efficiently edited---elements that would become hallmarks in many of del Toro's future films, including the other two in this collection---there's plenty to admire about Cronos, both as a wholly original horror fable and a stepping stone for the director's bigger achievements further down the road.
The Devil's Backbone (2001), set in sun-drenched Spain of 1939---just before the country's Civil War came to a close---follows young Carlos (Fernando Tielve) as he's unexpectedly left at an orphanage. He doesn't realize that his father has been killed in action, but it doesn't really matter: with the nearest town more than a day's walk away, Carlos won't be leaving any time soon. The orphanage director (Marisa Paredes) is distant but fair, the doctor (Federico Luppi) takes an interest in him, and his fellow orphans eventually accept Carlos as one of their own. Less welcoming are Jaime (Inigo Garces), a bully interested in comic book art, and Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a greedy caretaker who plans to break into a safe hidden inside the orphanage. Besides for their surroundings, however, everyone has one thing in common: they've all heard of "Santi", the ghost of a young boy who supposedly haunts the area at night. It isn't very long before Carlos sees the ghost, but curiosity eventually overcomes fear.
The lesson, of course, is that real-life danger is often more frightening that anything our imaginations can dream up. To compensate, The Devil's Backbone always keeps one foot in reality: it rarely feels headed in the direction of your average "jump scare" horror film, even when early scenes suggest otherwise. This violent, dramatic tale of loneliness and superstition is laced with political undertones, but its real weight is carried by the excellent performances, terrific music, and engaging visuals. Del Toro's knack for strong compositions and symbolism is full display here, with eye-catching imagery that lingers in the brain for days afterward. While its third act and ending feel more predictable than poetic, The Devil's Backbone is still a memorable film almost every step of the way.
Pan's Labyrinth (2006), set in Spain after the last gasps of its Civil War, follows young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her penchant for fairy tales. After the death of her father, Ofelia and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) travel to the home of Captain Vidal (Sergi López), their new stepfather and husband. This proves to be a less-than-ideal living environment, fueling Ofelia's desire to escape into the fantastic world around her: led by an insect-like creature to a labyrinth on the Captain's land, Ofelia encounters a faun who believes her to be the reincarnation of a princess. She's given three quests to prove herself, each one involving fantastic (and, in some cases, horrifying) creatures or difficult moral challenges. These diversions, though occasionally violent and hideous in their own right, stand in contrast with the film's striking real-world backdrop of civil war and the violence in its wake.
These two worlds are blended seamlessly, both in a technical sense and a spiritual one. Del Toro frequently employs careful vertical wipes---made to resemble the turning of pages, according to the director's 2007 commentary also included in this set---to make subtle connections between Vidal's homestead and the mystical labyrinth. His deliberate use of color is another telling giveaway, contrasting the increasingly cold reality of Ofelia's life with the surreal warmth of her fantasy world. The intricate production design also anchors Pan's Labyrinth nicely, from detailed and carefully-framed sets to stunning practical effects and costume designs. It's a true feast for the senses, but has plenty of substance to back up the style. Nominated for six Academy Awards and winner of three (Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Makeup), Pan's Labyrinth remains del Toro's last Spanish film after establishing a strong connection with comic book fans via Blade II and Hellboy earlier in the decade.
Video & Audio Quality
Since the discs for Cronos and The Devil's Backbone are identical to Criterion's previous Blu-ray editions (save for the artwork), any and all comments regarding A/V quality only pertain to Pan's Labyrinth.
Approved by director Guillermo del Toro, this newly color-graded 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer of Pan's Labyrinth was created from a 2K master and looks quite good (especially in comparison with New Line's 2007 Blu-ray, which suffered from excessive noise reduction). As far as "newly color-graded", the differences here aren't exactly drastic: more often than not, the film has a slightly more gold-and-green hue that's noticeable in just about every daytime shot. There's plenty of darkness here and this Blu-ray handles shadow detail very well; contrast levels seem more natural than boosted this time around, while textures and fine image detail are all strong---or at least evident---from start to finish. No obvious digital issues, from compression artifacts to edge enhancement (and, of course, excessive noise reduction) could be spotted along the way. It's a satisfying effort that feels perfectly suited for such a visually stunning production, and in my opinion a long-overdue upgrade that previous DVD and Blu-ray owners will appreciate.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
Surprisingly, we get two audio options here: the standard DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track and a new 7.1 remix, both in the original Spanish with optional English subtitles. Pan's Labyrinth is also no slouch in the audio department, serving up a great deal of tension via the well-mixed original score, strong channel separation, and no shortage of careful surround effects that sound robust and dynamic without fighting for attention. The 7.1 mix adds a few small touches here and there...and though it doesn't create an entirely new and different experience, I'd imagine that anyone with the extra two speakers will probably want to take advantage of its occasional benefits. Overall, this is an impressive presentation that, short of a full-blown Atmos track, can't sound any better than it does here.
Menu Design, Presentation, & Packaging
As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. Each film is given separate menu options for chapter selection, setup, bonus features and more, with relatively quick loading time and a handy "Resume" function. But the packaging is the real standout here: seen above, this three-disc set is housed in a deluxe fold-out case with envelopes and summaries for the films on each flap, as well as attractive new artwork on the inner and outer case by illustrator Vania Zouravliov
. Also tucked inside is a small but impressive 100-page Hardcover Book
featuring an introduction by author Neil Gaiman and three essays by critics Michael Atkinson, Mark Kermode, and Maitland McDonagh, along with production notes and sketches by del Toro and illustrators Carlos Giménez and Raúl Monge.
Since the discs for Cronos
and The Devil's Backbone
are identical to Criterion's previous Blu-ray editions (save for the artwork), any and all comments regarding bonus features only pertain to Pan's Labyrinth
New to this Blu-ray of Pan's Labyrinth is "The Spirit of Fairy Tales", an interview with director Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke (39 minutes); during this lengthy conversation, the director and novelist share their thoughts about fairy tales, childhood, and how these influences have shaped their books and films. "Beauty in the Beasts" is an entertaining interview with actor Doug Jones (28 minutes), who portrayed "The Faun / Pale Man". Jones shares details about his earlier work as a fill-in on Mimic and as Abe Sapien on both Hellboys, as well as the unique challenges he faced during the production of Pan's Labyrinth (including layers of makeup and prosthetics, standing on stilts, and being the only native English speaker in a Spanish production). A clip from Ivana Baquero's Audition (3 minutes) is also included, perhaps the only vintage extra that wasn't included on previous discs. Speaking of which...
Carried over from New Line's 2007 Blu-ray and DVD are plenty of terrific extras including a short Introduction and full-length Audio Commentary with del Toro, the interactive "Director's Notebook" with no shortage of drawings and sketches, four short to mid-length Featurettes ("The Power of Myth", "Pan and the Fairies", "The Color and the Shape", and "The Melody Echoes the Fairy Tale"), four Prequel Comics ("The Giant Toad", "The Fairies", "The Faun", and "The Pale Man"), a handful of pre-production Video Comparisons, and almost a dozen Trailers & TV Spots.
Missing in action is an episode of The Charlie Rose Show featuring del Toro with fellow directors Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams), as well as a poster gallery included in the marketing campaign section. Not exactly major losses, but disappointing for an otherwise well-stocked Blu-ray.
Thanks to the director's infectious enthusiasm, eye for detail, and an obvious love of bonus features, die-hard fans of Guillermo del Toro's work have been treated to no shortage of fully-loaded, comprehensive home video releases during the last decade or so. Criterion's handsomely-designed Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro, which collects three of his finest films (the already-released Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, as well as Pan's Labyrinth), may just be the best to date. Serving up a trio of fantastic A/V presentations, plenty of terrific supplements, and stylish packaging that even includes a 100-page hardcover book, this boxed set is an absolute no-brainer for anyone even halfway interested in del Toro's Spanish-language output. Unless you already own Cronos and/or The Devil's Backbone, there's absolutely no reason not to pick this boxed set up immediately (or at least put it on your wish list). Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.