Spending A Day With Guillermo del Toro’s “At Home With Monsters”

A look at the amazing exhibit.

The Shape of Water is in select theaters now. Get your tickets here!

(Photos by Michael Gingold)

Guillermo del Toro has created some of the most detailed, immersive fantasy worlds in screen history—environments you feel like you can reach out and touch. Fans living in or visiting three cities have had or will have the opportunity to come one step closer to that experience thanks to “At Home With Monsters,” an exhibition of items pertaining to his cinema that is among the most remarkable public displays of imagination ever offered.

In the tradition of the traveling Stanley Kubrick exhibit that’s currently in the midst of its worldwide tour, “At Home With Monsters” brings together everything from works of art that inspired the master filmmaker to actual props from his productions. And as with the Kubrick show, I was fortunate enough to catch it during a visit to California last year, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which hosted “At Home With Monsters” between August and November. The exhibit was organized by LACMA, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (where it appeared between March-May of this year) and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (where it is currently in residence through January 7, 2018).

My visit falls during the tail end of the exhibit’s run, and there is nonetheless a long line waiting to get in. Attendees are greeted by the Angel of Death from Hellboy II: The Golden Army, standing near an introduction printed on the wall beside the entrance. It relates how many of the wonders we’re about to see are on temporary leave from Bleak House, del Toro’s second home in the LA suburbs where he stores and displays a lifetime’s worth of accumulated objects. “He has always collected voraciously,” the text informs, “arranging his prized possessions in environments that nourish and motivate him.”

That’s the inspiration behind “At Home With Monsters” as well, in which the many different items are organized into eight thematic sections: Childhood and Innocence; Victoriana; Magic, Alchemy, and the Occult; Movies, Comics and Pop Culture; Death and the Afterlife; Freaks and Monsters; Rain Room; and Frankenstein and Horror. Within that last one, the Monster as personified by the legendary Boris Karloff is, unsurprisingly, the prominent representation. Among the most impressive works in the entire gallery are a series of life-size (and remarkably lifelike) sculptures that include a recreation of a scene from Bride of Frankenstein and another of Jack Pierce putting a shirtless Karloff into the classic makeup. Another Hill piece, a 7-foot mockup of Karloff-as-the-Monster’s head, is the centerpiece of a wall-sized photograph depicting a main Bleak House room that makes you even more jealous you can’t live there.

Del Toro’s own process, from very early in his life, is visible throughout “At Home.” There’s an endearing photo of the preteen budding monster maker terrorizing his sister Susana while wearing homemade scary eyes and vampire fangs, and his celebrated notebooks, their pages crammed with notes and drawings for potential film projects, are also on display. Concept illustrations for the director’s films by artists including Wayne Barlowe, Mike Mignola, TyRuben Ellingson, Carlos Zaragoza and others are everywhere, as are props, monsters and replicas, many by DDT Efectos Especiales and the Spectral Motion company. From Pan’s Labyrinth, the Faun looms and the Pale Man reaches out to grab you with an eye-embedded hand, while elsewhere, you can examine the eponymous device from Cronos, a Judas Breed insect from Mimic, Hellboy’s “Big Baby” gun, an albino penguin from the unmade At the Mountain of Madness and many others. Scattered throughout are items from non-del Toro movies, many involving vampires, such as Nosferatu, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the made-for-TV Salem’s Lot. A bust and full figure of the latter’s rodentlike Barlow are placed alongside sculpts of the Master from The Strain, pointing up the creative lineage.

Art by others is prominent as well: paintings, sculptures and more, all of it having some sort of influence on or kinship with del Toro and his output. H.R. Giger, of course, has a place here, as do Famous Monsters of Filmland legend Basil Gogos, comics legends Richard Corben, Alan Moore and Bernie Wrightson, comix pioneer Robert Crumb, visionary fantasist Moebius (a.k.a. Jean Giraud), macabre master Edward Gorey and many lesser-known but equally striking talents. Paintings of such genre-lit heroes as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft adorn the walls, and the potential creativity of attendees isn’t neglected either: A side room offers the opportunity for kids of all ages to use provided color pencils to draw fantastical creatures of their own imagining on paper-covered tables.

Other interactive elements include video screens playing highlights from del Toro’s films, a curtained section behind which dwells a projection of the ghost orphan Santi from The Devil’s Backbone and the aforementioned Rain Room, a recreation of a portion of Bleak House where a false window and rain effects give the impression of an endless thunderstorm. Unfortunately, you can’t pick up and read the horror comics (Creepy, Swamp Thing, Werewolf by Night et al.) and issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland you find in one room, much as you might be tempted.

“At Home With Monsters” offers such a wide and varied variety of memorabilia that you could spend an entire day there and still not take in every detail and tidbit of information it has to offer. The exhibit is more than a testament to the breadth of del Toro’s vision; it’s a tribute to the entire genre of the fantastic, as distilled through the enthusiasms of one man who has become one of its greatest proponents. Wandering through its rooms feels like taking a tour of the entire history of horror, science fiction and fantasy, reinforcing or having you mind opened up to their endless possibilities. If you haven’t caught it and can’t make it to Toronto by next January, there is a fine consolation prize: Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters, a companion book containing the filmmaker’s writings and words from other artists accompanying a wealth of photos of the exhibit’s many marvels.

Get your The Shape of Water tickets here!