Guillermo del Toro on His Mad Monster-Fueled Formative Years

By David Weiner

With Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, publisher James Warren and editor-in-chief Forrest J Ackerman made a huge impact on generations of Monster Kids — many of whom went on to achieve heights of fame and accomplishment in the various fields of entertainment. Counted among the elite who single out FM as an inspiration are such luminaries as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Stephen King, John Landis, Joe Dante, Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Peter Jackson and J.J. Abrams.  

But Guillermo del Toro may have been the ultimate Monster Kid. Growing up in Mexico watching classic monster movies on TV, the Oscar-winning director credits Famous Monsters as one of two magazines that motivated him to learn English — the other one being MAD magazine — using a small English-Spanish dictionary to pick up the language little by little. 

During an in-depth conversation about his Gothic ghost story CRIMSON PEAK back in 2015, he told me about his Monster Kid formative years with a sparkle in his eyes: “Between that and Universal Monsters movies that were playing on TV every Sunday — I don’t know how I was that fortunate — we saw everything: CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, MOLE PEOPLE, FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. Everything was on TV on Sundays, and in Mexico we subtitled the movies, so movies taught me pronunciation. But I learned English from Famous Monsters and MAD magazine.”

Of the impact of Famous Monsters, Guillermo recalled, “There was nothing like it at all. Back then, you had very pale imitations here and there that would come up, and died very quickly, but I think that the connection we all had was with Forry [Ackerman]. It was the connection you feel when a very strange uncle comes to visit a straight family home, you know? It really was liberating in a way that was almost like a Bradbury story, where the kid realizes he is weird, but he’s not alone.”

Guillermo shared how his early fondness for Forry and the magazine got him into a bit of trouble with his dad: “I first wrote Forry a letter when I was a very young kid asking him to adopt me,” he said with a chuckle. “I never got to send the letter because my dad found it, and he said, ‘What does it say?’ And my brother, who spoke English too and was a snitch, told him what the letter said. My father didn’t take it kindly, you know?”

The filmmaker eventually got to meet his hero around 1990 in Los Angeles: “I met Forry. I was 27, something like that, and it was mythical. I met him like everybody met him: I went to the Ackermansion, I took him to the House of Pies for cherry pie, and that began a ritual that got repeated over the years, once a year. … The great thing about Forry is how human he was. He wore flaws on his sleeve. He was not a guy that had any pretense. I met Ray Bradbury only once, but they reminded me of each other. They were very emotionally available, and they were sweet. They never discouraged you with a harsh word or a slap on the wrist. They were very, very kind.”

He concluded, “With my films, sometimes we went two years without seeing each other, but every time I saw him he was so kind and so nice. He was like that with everyone. He was a particularly benign influence on everybody that loves Forry. He was not a hard taskmaster. He was not a demanding friend. It was a very accommodating, loving presence in your life.”

David Weiner with Famous Monsters covers on display at del Toro’s “At Home with Monsters” LACMA exhibit

Many of Guillermo’s films, from CRONOS, MIMIC and BLADE 2 to HELLBOY, PAN’S LABYRINTH, PACIFIC RIM, CRIMSON PEAK, THE SHAPE OF WATER and PINOCCHIO, betray his inherent passion for the monster movies he grew up with. He soaked up the magic from the big and small screen and from the pages of Famous Monsters, and in turn has created his own brand of magic for the masses.

(A shorter version of this article first appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland issue #282)

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