MARCH/APRIL 2009
VICTORIA NELSON

CATHEDRAL HEAD

THE GOTHICK COSMOS OF GUILLERMO DEL TORO

DISCUSSED: Trolls, George Lucas, J. R. R. Tolkien, H. P. Lovecraft, Terry Gilliam, Horace Walpole, Melmoth the Wanderer, Guadalajara, Premodern Catholic Europe, Saint Wilgefortis, Piranesi, Arnold Böcklin, Caspar David Friedrich, Christina Rossetti, Alejibres, Robert Bly

“The entire world we live in is fabricated.”
—Guillermo del Toro, in an interview with Terry Gross

Among the dizzying array of grotesque entities crowding our vision in the Troll Market scene in Hellboy II, a creature in a red velvet fur-trimmed robe flashes briefly across the screen. Over its simian eyes and muzzle sits a miniature cathedral, complete with double towers and decorated archivolts, where a forehead should be. “Originally the idea was to have little humans running around the ramparts,” this creature’s onlie begetter, the movie’s writer/director Guillermo del Toro, cheerfully reported. “But the budget wouldn’t allow it.”

One of about thirty “throwaway” creatures del Toro created for a bravura tableau clearly intended to trump the cantina scene of George Lucas’s first Star Wars film, the monster called Cathedral Head is an emblem of its creator in much the same way the Troll Market sums up the manic whirlwind of a story it’s embedded in. Hellboy II, cowritten, like the first installment, with Mike Mignola from the latter’s graphic-novel series (and aptly dubbed “Pan’s Labyrinth on speed” by one of its producers), expands del Toro’s distinctive vocabulary of images in a baroque explosion of forms commemorated in a coffee-table book, Hellboy II: The Art of the Movie, published to coincide with the film’s release on DVD.

Currently del Toro is contractually committed to a two-movie version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; remakes of Frankenstein; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and Slaughterhouse-Five; an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness that he has already drafted a screenplay for; a three-volume vampire novel; and assorted other screenplays and producing gigs. As the forty-four-year-old director embarks on this staggeringly ambitious slate of projects that will keep him busy through the year 2017, it’s instructive to take a closer look at the deeply Gothic worldview that informs his work.

What, exactly, is Gothic? In recent decades the word has been stretched thinner than the cosmetic-surgery addict’s facial skin in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, but historically it describes two separate categories:

(1) What I like to call “Gothick,” the post-Enlightenment popular entertainments (bookended by Horace Walpole’s 1764 The Castle of Otranto and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820) that have morphed, through Victorian ghost stories and early twentieth-century pulp and comic-book horror, into today’s plethora of subgenres, including film, video games, “lifestyles,” and even new religious movements, and

(2) The actual historical period of the European Middle Ages, first dubbed “Gothic” (a word redolent of nasty barbarian Huns) by Renaissance architects anxious to distinguish their own work, inspired by Greek and Roman antiquity, from medieval sacred architecture. By the time of Walpole and his successors, it was a catchall label for a heady, nostalgic brew of decorative medievalisms served up in melodramatic novels and plays featuring illicit passion, secret crimes, nefarious Roman Catholic clerics, all folded into the suffocating embrace of an ancient abbey or ancestral home.

Del Toro’s films uniquely mix the old Gothic and the (relatively new) Gothick. Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, he has often described his childhood infatuation with monsters and the scandalized reaction of his devout grandmother, who twice attempted to perform exorcisms on him. “It’s a spiritual reality as strong as when people say, ‘I accept Jesus in my heart.’ Well, at a certain age, I accepted monsters into my heart.” In his brilliant commentary track to the 2004 special-edition DVD of The Devil’s Backbone (2001), he defines the Gothick as a way of seeing that discovers beauty in the monstrous. Because it “celebrates, embraces, and cherishes the darkness” we’ve been raised to reject, he asserts, the Gothick is the “only genre that teaches us to understand otherness.” Of Hellboy II he has said: “I find monstrous things incredibly beautiful, in the way that the most beautiful carvings in Gothic cathedrals are the grotesque carvings. If I were a mason, I would be carving gargoyles.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Victoria Nelson is writing a new collection of essays called Gothicka. Her last two books were The Secret Life of Puppets and Wild California. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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