It takes a lot to scare Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. He gets haunted right in his own home.
The Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water, the 2017 Best Picture winner, once told me about an unseen whispering ghost he encountered in his abode. He talked about it as if it happens to everybody.
“It was just like a very, very sad sigh right next to my ear, but it lasted for 15 minutes,” del Toro said. “It was a human voice.”
Del Toro has made some spine-tingling movies, among them Chronos (his 1993 feature debut), Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. He wrote an acclaimed book about the films of Alfred Hitchcock, whose familiar profile he can draw in just nine lines — as he demonstrated to me once with a Sharpie and sketchpad.
So when he describes a movie as being a must-see for horror fans, you want to pay attention. That film is Rogelio A. Gonzalez’s The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales, which screens Saturday at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of Sui generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema, a series del Toro co-programmed with TIFF’s Diana Sanchez that runs to April 6.
Gonzalez’s film, scripted by Luis Bunuel’s favoured associate Luis Alcoriza, is a 1960 horror/comedy/cultural critique about a friendly taxidermist named Dr. Pablo Morales, played by Arturo de Cordova, who is driven to madness and murder by a hateful holy roller of a spouse. The movie was a big hit in its home country but “it’s basically unknown outside of Mexico,” del Toro says from L.A.
Any fan of Hitchcock films — in particular Psycho, which came out the same year — will get their bones rattled by The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales. It’s based on “The Islington Mystery,” a short story by Arthur Machen, an influential horror author cited as a touchstone by the likes of Aleister Crowley and Stephen King.
“The performer, Arturo de Cordova, is one of the best actors ever in Latin American cinema,” del Toro says. “The film is about as iconoclastic as you could get back then. It really attacks the (Roman Catholic) church, it attacks ‘good morals,’ it shows the hypocrisy of everything, the putrefaction of good morals. It’s a very caustic movie and also a really entertaining one. It’s a lot less ghastly than it sounds.”
Maybe it’s not so ghastly for del Toro, or for hardcore horror fans, but be advised that The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales graphically lives up to its title. It’s no spoiler to say that when Dr. Morales finally decides he’s had enough of the mental and physical abuse rained upon him by his wife Gloria (Amparo Rivelles) as well as her brutal brother and her pious priest, the hectored hubby puts his taxidermy skills to ghoulish use.
A pet hawk watches with a sharp eye as Dr. Morales gets going with his tools and workbench. The film takes yet another stylistic turn as it becomes a courtroom drama with a message worthy of not only Hitchcock but Rod Serling.
Such freewheeling mixing of genres likely wouldn’t have gone over well with a mainstream Hollywood audience in 1960 — Psycho was a straight-up horror film — but it was emblematic of Mexican cinema, del Toro says.
“Oh, absolutely! That is why, in a single masked-wrestler movie, you can get a spy movie, a melodrama, a horror movie and a sci-fi movie within a running time of 85 minutes. Mexican genre movies are not one single genre, they are a mixture of things, and that is what I find fascinating.”
You can see his homeland heritage in The Shape of Water, which del Toro filmed in Toronto, and which blends the romance, sci-fi, horror, thriller and musical genres in its story of a cleaning woman who falls in love with an amphibious man-creature being held captive in a secret research lab.
“The idea for me with Shape was to make a love story with a creature and cleaning lady that mixes Douglas Sirk (romances) and musicals. If you see any of my movies, most of them, the genres are mixing. Constantly.”
It says a lot about how much Oscar voters have changed that they gave Best Picture to a hybrid genre film like The Shape of Water. Could you imagine the film academy of decades past so honouring 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon, a similar love story? It didn’t get a single Oscar nomination, not even for its technical prowess.
But Mexican movie lovers were way ahead of Hollywood, as can be seen in many of the offerings of TIFF’s Sui generis series, which spans six decades and includes some 25 movies.
Other highlights of the series still to come: the surreal 1962 Bunuel classic The Exterminating Angel (also screening this Saturday, just before The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales); and the satirical Love in the Time of Hysteria, the 1991 feature debut of Roma director Alfonso Cuaron (March 29). Full details at tiff.net.
Human wisdom vs. mechanical minds: There’s been much discussion in the past week about the dubious practice of giving full control to computers in the flying of aircraft, following recent deadly crashes and the subsequent grounding of late-model Boeing 737 jets. Pilots are saying that more and better flight training of humans is necessary so they can override robotic autopilot procedures when they deem it necessary.
Eye-popping support for this argument can be seen in Apollo 11, the moon-landing documentary now screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox and elsewhere. It shows how Neil Armstrong took over manual control of the lunar lander on July 20, 1969, to avoid crashing into a rock-filled crater that the overloaded flight computer was steering toward. Without Armstrong’s experience, skill and calm judgment, the mission would have ended in disaster. The moon-landing scene is also dramatically recreated in First Man, the recent movie by Damien Chazelle that’s now available on DVD.
Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm