Why del Toro's At the Mountains of Madness Will Probably Be Terrible
Wall Street Journal reported over the Independence Day weekend that Guillermo del Toro would be moving forward on his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness after all. Previously, del Toro had interest from Universal to make the film, but they balked at making such a huge, R-Rated movie based on the work of an author that has honestly never really made Hollywood any money directly (Ripped off, uncredited ideas is another matter).
Now Legendary Pictures, flush with all that Pacific Rim cash, is happy to pony up del Toro's budget and del Toro has mellowed out enough to turn in a PG-13 finished product. Lovecraft fans everywhere rejoice in hopes that finally the master of weird tales gets the A-list treatment he deserves.
It's almost certainly going to be a failure.
First thing's first... that budget. Del Toro wants $120 million to make it, and that is insane on so many levels. At The Mountains of Madness is a horror story, and the list of big budget horror films that end up on Best Of lists is vey, very short. World War Z and I Am Legend come to mind. Both based on beloved books and starring top talent, and both critical failures mostly because expansive budgets put too many chefs in the kitchen tweaking things to try and recoup all those dollars.
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Great horror films are one of two things. They are either trashy spectacles of excess for excess sake or they are deeply personal experience. The foremost is fine, of course, but the great horror films know that you can only truly unsettle a person by tapping into something inside them that fears on a primal and possibly irrational level. Making a movie like that on a $120 million budget is simply impossible.
What's weird is Del Toro knows this better than anyone. The Devil's Backbone and Cronos are both amazing early horror outings from him that remain critical successes and addressed very personal terrors. Compare them to 1997's Mimic, which had a lot of Hollywood meddling, and you see the difference. It's almost a scientific principle that the more money you sink into a horror film the worse it's going to be.
"This is different," you say. "This is a post-Pacific Rim del Toro. He'll be able to make the perfect giant monster movie! Look at Godzilla. The world is ready." Great, but the problem is that At The Mountains of Madness isn't a giant monster movie.
The Elder Things are little bigger than humans, and quotes from del Toro in the WSJ interview show that del Toro is going to focus on them and their initial dissections of man. They're weird creatures that are hard to wrap your head around, but kaiju they ain't.
Yes, there is a giant shoggoth that forms the action-packed finale, but it's just the formless, roiling mass in a subterranean labyrinth. House on Haunted Hill did that on a quarter of the budget... and that film didn't suck because of the effects. People seem to think that we're going to get Pacific Rim plus Cthulhu, but that's not At The Mountains of Madness.
In fact, you kind of have to wonder why you'd pick this particular Lovecraft story to make a movie out of anyway. It's generally considered to be the closest thing to a proper novel Lovecraft ever wrote, but that's not really a reason on its own. The concept that it explores of a hidden alien menace that's secretly responsible for the creation of life on Earth was radical in Lovecraft's time, but now it's nothing revolutionary.
Also, Antarctica is no longer the mysterious, last frontier on Earth that it used to be. That's not to say that there's a McDonald's there, but it's not automatically going to make people feel like they're on another planet.
It's long been said that you can't make good Lovecraft films, but that's a lie. Call of Cthulhu was a $50,000 masterpiece of a silent film, and if you haven't seen 13:de mars 1941 then take five minutes and do so because it's fantastic. Dedicated fans making labors of love can crank out things of beauty.
However, it may very well be impossible to wed Lovecraft and Hollywood in a way that makes fans happy and the movie industry rich. If anyone can do it it's del Toro, but I'd be a lot more hopeful if someone put a $50 million cap on the project and attended to something a little more conventional like The Rats in the Walls. If he wanted to continue his penchant for dark fairy tales he could try and put together all the Randolph Carter stories, but I have a feeling that unless he's got something really unique up his sleeve all At The Mountains of Madness is going to do is disappoint everyone involved.
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