Artistic expressions of horror are often regarded as disreputable – junk food for the masses, not something to be savored – so it’s gratifying to see the genre receive a little respect in the form of an exhibition at a major metropolitan museum in the form of Guillermo Del Toro: At Home with Monsters, currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Culled from the filmmaker’s personal collection, At Home with Monsters features an overwhelming multitude of paintings, drawings, miniatures, installations, and life-size figures, transforming the museum’s Arts of the Americas building into a virtual chamber of horrors – though one with an emphasize on wonder and imagination, rather than revulsion.
Despite Del Toro’s name in the title, At Home with Monsters is less a tribute to his cinematic career than an exploration of his sources of inspiration, which then manifest in his film work, represented in props, costumes, and film clips. Familiar names in fantasy art, such as Wayne Barlow and H.R. Giger, are represented, along with classic masters such as Henry Fuseli, not to mention some of Del Toro’s own watercolors and ink drawings – and, just for good measure, a piece of concept art by James Cameron for Avatar. Statues and paintings depict eerie Gothic settings and the eternal battle between Good and Evil. A marionette of Nosferatu dangles from a clock face. A miniature Talos from Jason and the Argonauts peers from a glass case, on a shelf just above the mask worn by the unfortunate Winslow Leach in The Phantom of the Paradise. An enormous Frankenstein face looms over an entrance to a room dotted with covers from monster magazines. Crustaceans hang from the ceilings; projected butterflies flutter on the wall; an ambient soundscape permeates the premises. Costumes, props, and designs from Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, and Crimson Peak are interspersed throughout. All it would take would be a few masked actors to turn this into a Halloween haunt.
For our taste, the highlight of At Home with Monsters is the life-sized figures. H.P. Lovecraft stands as real as life, book in hand, looking quite literary. E.A Poe lounges in a chair in a darkened room, rain-soaked windows in the wall behind him (a nifty visual effect). Makeup artist Jack Pierce turns Boris Karloff into the Frankenstein Monster, while the actor sips a cup of tea, his pinky finger properly extended. Dr. Pretorius gloats while the Bride of Frankenstein receives unwanted attention from her would-be mate. In a particularly eerie installation, the ghost of Santi (from Del Toro’s gem, The Devil’s Backbone) peers mournfully from within a darkened enclosure, with dimly glimpsed ectoplasmic vapors emanating from his head.
If there is a problem with Guillermo Del Toro: At Home with Monsters, it is that the number of items on display tends to blind one’s view of the individual trees, leaving one to see only the forest. This is exacerbated by LACMA’s habit of presenting “Specially Ticketed Exhibitions” (of which this is one) in tightly packed spaces, with admission time-stamped on tickets in half-hour intervals. The result is a sort of cattle call atmosphere, in which viewers are gently herded through the exhibition space in a roughly clockwise manner, expected to view each item for a few seconds before moving on to make room for the rest of the crowd. Leisurely browsing until something catches one’s eye long enough to hold attention for true appreciation is a bit of a luxury under these circumstances. The result is that larger, more prominently displayed works are more likely to receive full attention, while the myriad smaller items blur together in memory, like the displays meant to distract people while they wait in line for a major attraction at an amusement park.
The exhibition tries to turn the flow-through viewing approach to advantage by arranging the items thematically, beginning with visions of childhood, moving through magic and occultism, and eventually to death and the afterlife; however, we doubt that the thematic groupings would be apparent to viewers if not pointed out in the program.
Nevertheless, fans (whether of Del Toro in particular or of horror in general) will find this collection worth viewing. In a way, it’s a thumbnail history of the horror genre, a combination of high art and pop culture, oil paintings rubbing shoulders with comic books, flights of imagination hovering over depths of darkness – along with a touch of the absurd.
For the latter element, above all else we recommend that you wind your way back to the farthest room and pause for a few moments to peruse the giddy goofiness that is “Angel Vs the Vampire,” a four-minute spoof of Mexico’s luchador (masked wrestler) horror movies, such as Santo Vs. the Vampire Women, which Del Toro directed for his FX television series The Strain. It’s probably not as funny as the movies it spoofs – what could be? – but it’s still must-see viewing.
Check out the photo gallery below, images copyright 2016 by Alisa C. Twombly. Or check out our video here.