She’s a Bleak…House: Guillermo del Toro’s "At Home With Monsters" Exhibition

November 19, 2017 — I never made it to the Ackermansion, Forrest J. Ackerman’s legendary collection of science fiction and horror movie props and memorabilia that he kept in his Los Angeles house. Well, buried himself under is probably more accurate. I’m not sure if there’s a contemporary analogue to the Ackermansion, but it might be Bleak House.

Bleak House is the home of Guillermo del Toro’s movie monster collection. As the guy behind Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies, and Mimic, the director knows his monsters. Bleak House isn’t GDT’s actual home, sweet, home, though. It’s a second house he bought to house his collection. And from images I’ve seen of it over the years, including those featured in his 2013 book Guillermo del Toro: Cabinet of Curiosities, it is a fantastic collection in both definitions of the term.

Coffin box from The Strain television series and the Angel of Death from Hellboy II

It features props from his movies, full-sized figures of famous movie monsters and horror authors, more toys than that spoiled kid in that one Richard Pryor movie, and enough art to wallpaper the entire mansion. Basically, Bleak House (a Charles Dickens reference) is dedicated to the physical incarnations of GDT’s work, interests, and passions.

However, unlike the Ackermansion, Bleak House isn’t open to the public.

But then one day, somebody that he’s probably since unfriended on Facebook convinced GDT to stop Smaugging his treasures and put together a travelling exhibit of them. It's called At Home with Monsters, and I caught up with it at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, its third stop after Los Angeles and Minneapolis on its short tour away from Bleak House.

Ghost from Crimson Peak

Man, was I anxious to see GDT’s toys. Even after I had my ticket in hand (or, on phone) and was in a hotel room less than half a mile from the museum, I was just itching out of my skin, knowing for sure that this would be the moment nuclear war broke out or Jesus returned or aliens landed on the Mall in D.C.

I love GDT’s monsters. Even the ones in those of his movies that I’m less into. But I’ll take a monster maker over a story teller any day. Story tellers are annoying.

I arrived at the art museum without Jesus getting in my way, walked up the stairs and into the exhibit, and came face-to-palm-eye with the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth. The exhibit would, quite brilliantly, employ signs with that palm-eye throughout to warn people to look, but not to touch. It should be the universal symbol for that.

Inside, the rooms were painted red. Hellboy-colored. Crimson Peak-colored. Like we’re seeing inside of GDT’s own heart, a bad poet might say. Except eventually those red walls gave way to walls covered floor-to-ceiling in comic books like the scales of one of the Kaiju from Pacific Rim. A very gaudy Kaiju.

And I’m talking about the walls because I was absolutely overwhelmed by the collection itself and don’t know at all how to characterize it or my reaction to it very well. There were props and costumes from his movies, full-figured reproductions of classic horror characters from Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Freaks, and classic horror authors H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. There was original art from Bernie Wrightson, Basil Gogos, H.R. Giger, Stephen Gammell. There were all types of artifacts and art pieces tucked here and there that fit his sensibility. And that sensibility was, of course, monsters.

Tom Kuebler's H.P. Lovecraft

I took 7.3 billion photos, and every single piece was such a highlight that it was like walking through a bank of blinding spotlights. But I did have some favorites:

1) Angel of Death: This character from Hellboy II: The Golden Army is my favorite creature he’s ever dreamed up. I don’t think I have to argue this point. Just look at the thing.

2) Tom Kuebler’s Edgar Allan Poe. Tom Kuebler is one of my favorite contemporary artists. What he can do with silicon and hair and glass and fabric is mindboggling. His pieces are so realistic, they feel like they should be in natural history museums instead of an art museum. GDT commissions a good bit of his work, and while Lovecraft and the Freaks gang and the Elephant Man from Kuebler’s oeuvre were all present, it was Poe that I loved the most. Incidentally, nearby to Kuebler’s Poe was a bust of Poe by Bryan Moore, a second casting based on this bust that resides in the Boston Public Library.

3) Rain Room: Poe was displayed in a recreation of GDT’s Rain Room. In Bleak House, GDT has a room rigged with sound and a window projection to give him a constant thunderstorm if he so desires. The effect worked pretty well and makes me want to do it to my study.

3) The Work of Mike Hill. I was unfamiliar with Hill’s work going in, but after seeing his Bride of Frankenstein trio and the giant head of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster that usually looms from an upper story of GDT’s foyer, I quickly became a fan.

4) GDT’s Notebooks: GDT regular writes story ideas and sketches out concepts in a notebook he carries around. The effect comes off almost like an illuminated manuscript. When he finishes one notebook, he starts the next. Four of his notebooks were on display in the exhibit. Below each was an interactive screen where you could flip through virtual versions of them.

5) Mary Blair Concept Art: I love the concept art that Mary Blair did for Disney in general, but my favorite of her work is the concept art she created for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. This was the first time I got to see something of hers in person.

When I got to the end of this exhibit, I turned around and walked through it again. I hated passing beneath that exit sign.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t tell you that it’s only in Toronto through January 7, then it goes to Mexico for a few months, and then it’s back to Bleak House, because according to GDT, “I want my shit back.” I don’t blame him.

Pan from Pan's Labyrinthe

Penguin creature from the unproduced At the Mountains of Madness

Original Stephen Gammell art for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books 

Characters from Tod Browning's Freaks

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