TORONTO - It started with the first book he bought - a compilation of horror stories edited by Forrest J. Ackerman. Guillermo del Toro was only 7, but he was already fascinated by monsters, outsiders and death.
More than 40 years later, del Toro's passion for monsters, movies, comics, books and art still burns, fueling the two major roles of his life: filmmaker and collector.
As a filmmaker, he has shared his imagination in such visually striking movies as "Pan's Labyrinth," "Crimson Peak" and the new "The Shape of Water." But his large collection - he estimates it includes 10,000 books, 50,000 comics, thousands of toys and artifacts and nearly 600 artworks related to movies, literature and art - was only seen by friends and those working alongside him on his movies.
Once photos of his treasures and oddities made their way to fans, they clamored for public tours. Instead, del Toro finally took his collection to his fans.
"Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters," at the Art Gallery of Ontario through Jan. 7, is a small slice of the filmmaker's large collection culled since he bought that first horror book. It once took up four rooms of the Southern California home he shares with his wife and two daughters. In 2006, del Toro bought the first of two adjoining houses now named Bleak House after his favorite novel, and spent four years organizing the collection into 13 themed libraries.
It's del Toro's homage to the late Ackerman and the legendary monster collection he kept in his Ackermansion. Ackerman, the editor of Famous Monsters magazine, made a lifelong impact on del Toro and became his mentor.
But Bleak House is not a museum; it's del Toro's working space, a fact author Mark Scott Zicree discusses in the book "Guillermo del Toro: Cabinet of Curiosities." "Wandering Bleak House is a 'Through the Looking Glass' experience, as if one has actually stepped into one of his film," Zicree wrote.
You'll get the feeling in the exhibit, too, where you can see how del Toro has been influenced through his rare books, original artwork (yes, that's a chilling original by H.R. Giger on the wall at the AGO), busts and life-sized figures of authors, characters and film creatures, as well as the filmmaker's notebooks and storyboards.
The exhibit is only about 10 percent of his collection that is "every book I've ever read and most every toy I ever bought." It has seven Bleak House themes, all found in del Toro's movies, too: "Childhood and Innocence," "Victoriana," "Rain Room," "Death and the Afterlife," "Outsiders," "Movies, Comic Books and Pop Culture" and "Frankenstein and Horror."
A fun ride
After two hours meandering through the exhibit's seven rooms (some the size of a grand hall), it was tempting to get back in line like the child exclaiming "again" after an amusement park ride. But the popular exhibit demands timed tickets. A second ride through del Toro's cabinet of curiosities will have to wait for another day.
"Monsters" starts with a sight familiar to del Toro fans: a mural of the real Bleak House foyer with the massive 5-foot tall head of Frankenstein's monster that is suspended from the second-floor banister. Don't worry, the real head (sculpted by Mike Hill) is later in the exhibit at just the right height for a selfie.
A life-sized sculpture of the horrifying Pale Man (made of silicone and fiberglass) from "Pan's Labyrinth," greets visitors walking into the first themed room, "Childhood and Innocence." The elongated folds of skin over his bony form are even creepier when he's standing inches away from you with arms outreached. He's far from the only familiar face you'll see.
The Faun, another of "Pan's" creatures, is exquisite in detail including a foot made of a large tree root and broken branches protruding from his body like bones. Slung over his shoulder is the intricately crafted cylinder in which Faun carried the fairies that guided young Ofelia between two worlds.
Life-sized re-creations of scenes from "Frankenstein" are stunning yet tinged in sadness as they depict the creature holding onto something he can never have: he's frolicking with little Maria minutes before he would throw her into the water like a flower, and with his appalled bride as Dr. Pretorious stands nearby. These are also by Hill, a former sculptor at Tussaud's.
The Mother's Ghost from the Gothic romance "Crimson Peak" is an imposing figure in flowing black lace from the top of her oversized black hat and facial veil to her voluminous gown. Much in this room for "Death and the Afterlife" is dedicated to that Gothic – and ghostly - romance. Three mannequins wear costumes of the young bride Edith (played by Mia Wasikowska) including two extravagantly detailed Victorian gowns. The layers of ruffles swirling on the ground are lovely.
The Angel of Death from "Hellboy II" is stunning. Her peacock feather-like wings, adorned with eyes, are outstretched several feet. She stands against crimson red walls – an important color to del Toro - that are throughout the exhibit and in Bleak House. (Want it for your home? It's Benjamin Moore AF-290 Affinity Caliente).
Classic film buffs will get a kick out of the miniature time machines, based on the George Pal film, and re-creations of Ray Harryhausen's skeleton soldiers from "Jason and the Argonauts." Fans of the FX series "The Strain," based on del Toro's books, will find demon statues, including a creepy maquette of the Master.
Each room has a video of themed highlights from del Toro movies. Watch them and then look around the room to understand the connection between del Toro, his movies and the collection. That somewhat maudlin piano music you hear isn't canned, but a real pianist in a room dedicated to authors. Nearby, a statue of H.P. Lovecraft, one of the authors who inspired del Toro, is looking up from a book at visitors. We are clearly intruding and a chill inexplicably fills the room. (It's one of the statues del Toro commissioned by artist Thomas Kuebler and it is freaky real.)
There's a different feeling in the Rain Room where the sounds of rain hitting a window are quite comforting. Based on the real Rain Room in del Toro's Bleak House, which is housed in a perpetual dark and stormy night that he rigged, is his favorite place to work. ("It's incredibly soothing. I drop on a huge sofa and I go into a delicious trance and write for a few hours," he noted.) Edgar Allan Poe is in a chair by the rain-splattered window. Floor-to-ceiling rare books flank one wall; another has cases with busts of Poe and other literary figures. It is the most comfortable room in the exhibit. Take a seat at one of the two large benches to soak it all in.
Reading del Toro's introduction to the "Outsiders" room gives the impression this theme is the one that most informed him as a child, a man and a filmmaker. "I felt at the age of seven or eight, or even earlier, that I didn't really belong with the others kids that perfectly. I felt like an outsider. The horror genre seems to show me other outcasts I could sympathize with," del Toro writes.
In a corner is John Hurt as the Elephant Man from the David Lynch film. A trio of characters from Tod Browning's 1932 horror film "Freaks" are stunningly lifelike and unsettling.
Though del Toro had considered allowing the exhibit to continue to other cities (it has been in Los Angeles and Minneapolis), he reconsidered. He can't bear to be without his friends anymore. Such is the life of the ultimate fan boy.
"Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters"
Through Jan. 7 at the Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W, Toronto. Timed tickets are required and can be bought via ago.net