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Pan's Labyrinth creature Hand

I’m not much for horror. I don’t go see the films, I don’t read the books, and even the cheesy slasher movies – and their spoofs – freak me out. But despite the fact that I prefer to cover my eyes during the scary parts of movies, I was intrigued enough by the Guillermo del Toro At Home with Monsters exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario that I decided to go see it – and because I do appreciate a little dramatic irony if not horror, I chose the morning of Halloween for my visit.

So who is Guillermo del Toro, anyway?

I’m the first to admit that I am no videophile. I like movies more than ‘films’, and it’s highly unlikely that I would know which director did which movie. However, the instant that I was greeted by the first display in the exhibit, I realized I had actually seen some of Guillermo del Toro’s movies – because it’s hard to forget a creature like this guy from Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Pale Man Pans Labyrinth

The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth

In fact, there are a lot of props and references to Pan’s Labyrinth in the At Home with Monsters Exhibition. Just as there are plenty from del Toro’s Hellboy movies. which I’ve also seen. (I know this sounds inconsistent with what I just said about not being a horror fanatic, but I consider these movies more ‘fantasy’ than ‘horror’.)

Guillermo del Toro movie posters

Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy by del Toro

Faun with Fairies from Pan's Labyrinth

Faun with Fairies from Pan’s Labyrinth

Pans Labyrinth Faun closeup

Detail of Faun’s head

What made this exhibition so interesting to me is the fact that it became clear that del Toro is as obsessed with creative detail and visual effects as he is with actual horror – to the point where he takes his work home with him.

Bleak House: At Home with Monsters, literally

Bleak House Foyer

Foyer of Guillermo del Toro’s Bleak House

Aptly titled, At Home with Monsters is a sneak peek into Bleak House, one of two homes purchased by del Toro specifically to house his collection of curiosities and memorabilia that he has collected since he was a small child. The artefacts that are on display at the Art Gallery are only a tiny fraction of the objects contained in these homes, but a few of the more spectacular ones are here for the exhibition.

Empathy for Frankenstein

Del Toro has a particular fondness for the Frankenstein story. As he says, “Frankenstein, to me, is instrumental in the way I see the world…It is the essential narrative of the fall of man into an imperfect world by an uncaring creator.”

Frankenstein etching

Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?”

From classic illustrations of Shelly’s masterpiece of a monster to fully-rendered 3-D tableaus, you’ll find several representations of Frankenstein in the exhibition.

Frankenstein and Bride

Tableau by Mike Hill inspired by the 1935 film, Bride of Frankenstein

You can’t possibly miss the giant 5-foot head of Frankenstein, on loan from Bleak House, where it is the first thing to greet visitors in the house’s foyer. Although it’s not the first creature you meet in the AGO’s exhibition, it is mounted at the same height as it is in the Bleak House entrance, so visitors to the gallery have to pass under its watchful eyes.

del Toros 5-foot Frankenstein head

As close as I care to get to Frankenstein

Intriguing portraits

There are several installations in the exhibition that are freakishly realistic, including three-dimensional figures that are so life-like they put Madame Tussaud’s to shame.

H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is convincingly recreated in actual size.

Others are barely two dimensional.

Thin man

This thin, distorted face is about 6 feet high

I particularly liked these two smaller, whimsical Victorian portraits – my favourite being the Queen of the Sea Monkeys.

Creepy portraits

Victorian-style portraits

And then there are exhibits that are literally freakish, including this collection of statues modelled after people that were featured in Tod Browning’s 1932 Hollywood film, Freaks. The characters in the film were played by people with genuine abnormalities who worked in actual sideshows to earn a living.

Freaks Hans Schlitzie and Bird Woman

“Freaks” ringmaster Hans, Schlitzie and the Bird Woman

But the most disturbing portraits might have been a series of infant photographs that are part of the Art Gallery’s own collection. When del Toro saw these images, he was fascinated with them, and decided to include them in the exhibition. Titled “Hidden Mothers”, these 19th century portraits required long exposures of 18 to 30 seconds, so in order to focus on the child, the mothers were draped and hidden so as not to distract from the baby. Yeah, that’s not creepy.

Hidden mothers from AGO photos

“Hidden Mothers”: actual Victorian portraits from the AGO photo collections

For book lovers, too

Comic book room

Guillermo del Toro estimates he has over 10,000 books in his homes, or ‘every book he’s ever read’, as he describes it in a short video introduction. Some of these books are on display in the ‘library’ recreated in the exhibition, as well as a ‘room’ filled with actual comic books.

Comics closeup

No surprise that monsters are a theme in the comics del Toro collects

Attention to detail

Guillermo del Toro is not just a producer and director; he has worked in every aspect of film, including as a talented make up artist, set designer and storyboard artist. This attention to creative detail is evident in the incredible workmanship in the creatures and props that are on display. Their Steampunk vibe is another reason why I found the collection so appealing. (I did go to a go to a Steampunk festival after all!)

Miniature Time Machine

Small scale model for the 1960 Time Machine movie

Prop helmet from Pacific Rim movie

Steampunk-style prop helmet from Pacific Rim movie

Looking at the imagination behind these objects, I couldn’t help thinking that this Guillermo guy would be an amazing father to have when you needed a Halloween costume!

Welcome? Home

While Guillermo del Toro would be an amazing resource come Halloween, and he is clearly a talented creative force, I’m not sure I’d want to be an overnight guest at Bleak House, let alone a resident. (I’m in good company here since even del Toro’s own daughter finds it too scary.)

But a short visit to the At Home with Monsters exhibition is well worth your time, as it is visually amazing and touches on a subject, horror,  that has fascinated people for ages, whether in legend, literature or movies. But even for horror-phobes like myself who prefer to hide behind their hands when the going gets gory, on this particular occasion, I was all eyes.

eyes in Angel of Death wings

TIP: At Home with Monsters runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario until January 7, 2018. Tickets cost $25 for adults with special rates for students and seniors. Complete details on the website.

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