“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft was the father of cosmic horror. A man who inspired and terrified individuals across this world, yet boasted a grand indifference to human beliefs and affairs. Within film, and particularly the sci-fi genre, his influence is profound. From silent films (The Call of Cthulhu) to modern classics (Alien, The Cabin in the Woods, and The Thing), Lovecraft is there. One man’s work boasts Lovecraft’s echoes louder than most though. From the gothic stylistic choices to his un-Hollywoodlike narrative structures, Guillermo del Toro has shown himself a big Lovecraft fan and At the Mountains of Madness (AtMoM) is his passion project. Yet del Toro’s struggle has only verified Lovecraft’s opening line. A decade on, del Toro is still striving to make the unknown known.
For those unaware of the 1936 novella, it’s told by William Dyer, a geologist and professor, who regales the story of his own horrific expedition to the Antarctic in the vain attempt to stop a much-publicised new trip. Dyer reflects on the group’s discovery of ancient, otherworldly remnants that throw into question the realms of reality. Madness, aliens and existential questions all combine to create an atmospheric, terrifying and formidable tale. Very few directors working today could take on such a challenge. David Lynch, John Carpenter, Darren Aronofsky and Bong Joon-ho are all directors who have the skills and mastery to combine atmospheric horror with strong visuals. But it’s fair to say that the leading name in these two disciplines is Guillermo del Toro. The director teamed up with regular collaborator Matthew Robbins in 2006 to formulate a script in the hope of bringing AtMoM to the screen, 70 years after it was first published.
For the record, we’re going off this version of the AtMoM script, which is believed to have been written in 2010. To start with they bring in the mother of all monsters: Cthulhu. Part octopus, part man, and part dragon, Lovecraft’s gigantic cosmic entity is bad news. His presence is threatened in the novella but never actually revealed, so to see the awesome creature here is a bold move. His introduction is part of a wider push for more action across the script, which didn’t please everybody. Some Lovecraft fans have protested the lack of nuance, but del Toro and Robbins are here to entertain and their script does that with aplomb. Anyway, del Toro is one of the most gorgeous visual directors working today so it’s hardly like we’re devolving into Bayhem. In fact, the sketches unearthed from his notebooks showcase del Toro’s vision for the film in beautiful and haunting glimpses.
In 2006, del Toro and Robbins approached Warner Bros. with a version of the above script. This proposed multi-million R-rated horror extravaganza was, and still is, a dream project for del Toro. His enthusiasm in interviews throughout the years is infectious and intense (see here, here and here). Yet the producers couldn’t quite envision how such a complex, unconventional project could work. Del Toro was not perturbed, and he received two sources of incredible backing in the form of Tom Cruise and James Cameron.
Despite Chris Pine and James McAvoy’s names rumoured for the lead role, Cruise was del Toro’s top choice. The Mission: Impossible star was interested too. Better yet, self-titled ‘King of Hollywood’ James Cameron was shouting from every rooftop about the quality of the project. The Titanic director enthused about “the design work, the physical maquettes, the CG test scenes; the artwork is all phenomenal.” Cameron confessed he was just there to push the project along, using his brand value to get it made. Yet Warner Bros. were still not convinced. Even with Cruise and Cameron making del Toro’s dream look more plausible (and bankable) by the day, the worries of the producers could not be assuaged. Del Toro noted how they were “very nervous about the cost and it not having a love story or a happy ending, but it’s impossible to do either in the Lovecraft universe.” It’s true that the budget required to create the Elder Things would have been astronomical – somewhere north of $170 million – and the dark, horrific tone was unlikely to bring in the money the studio needed.
The big names attached still meant this project had some allure, and Universal came calling. Problem is that Universal also insisted upon restrictions and changes. For them, the film had to be a PG-13 in order to open up a big enough audience to cover the colossal budget; as you can see, there is a pattern emerging. Del Toro refused, insisting “I think the R should be worn like a badge of merit in promoting the movie”. The Mexican writer/director was not being overtly stubborn, but rather true to his morals and the nature of the source. The script we’ve read places the emphasis upon atmosphere, dread and some impressive clashes; it’s not a myriad of gore or violence. Plus, a work of Lovecraft neutered from its true intensity is something that del Toro and his fans could not bear to see. Eventually Universal passed in 2011 and the film stood unwanted and unloved by the studios.
A year later, matters grew worse. Del Toro’s passion project received what appeared to be a fatal hammer blow from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Whilst del Toro had begun work on Pacific Rim, Scott had finished and released his Alien prequel, a film that bore an almost impossible resemblance in places to the AtMoM script. It shouldn’t be too surprising to see the similarities as the Alien franchise was greatly inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft. With a few tweaks here and there, the story resembles a futuristic version of the novella. Del Toro knew it too. On his personal site, he wrote, “as a fan, I am delighted to see a new RS [Ridley Scott] science fiction film, but this will probably mark a long pause -if not the demise- of ATMOM.” His disappointment was palpable as he went on to say how the film had the “same premise. Scenes that would be almost identical.”
Thanks to The Robots Voice‘s comparison, it’s possible to prove del Toro was correct. For example, let’s look at the storm on planet LV-223 in Prometheus. For those who cannot recall, near the beginning of the movie the scientists land on the planet and begin their exploratory mission. Their discovery of a haunting ancient structure, where they witness the decapitated corpse of a large alien alongside mysterious ancient ruins, appears to cause a storm on the planet that forces them to retreat, kickstarting the series of continually terrible events. Likewise, in AtMoM the group investigate the ruins but as they become hypnotised by the miraculous objects (as with Prometheus) a storm arrives that again begins the characters’ downward spiral. Later on in Prometheus the crew return to the structure, and David (Michael Fassbender) separately discovers a control room which contains blue orbs representing a map to the stars. Again, del Toro and Robbins’ script echoes this scene nearly blow for blow. This may seem tenuous but the similarities are uncanny, and it would be impossible to avoid such comparisons.
And so, Pacific Rim came next and the world moved on. Still resolutely determined to see AtMoM made, del Toro has continued to push the film. At Comic-Con 2014 he asked the fans whether they wanted Hellboy 3 or AtMoM – and even though the crowd chanted back the former, the director was still leaning towards a Lovecraft adaptation. Del Toro’s perseverance has paid off as recently as last year with Crimson Peak, which took eight years from initial pitch to silver screen. So maybe, just maybe, there is a hope that this could be our first Best Film Never Made that actually escapes development hell. Before he can get round to it though, del Toro’s still got Pacific Rim 2, Hellboy 3 and a live action version of Pinocchio to make. He’s a busy man. Yet the allure of adapting such a classic from one of his leading inspirations will surely be a temptation del Toro cannot easily ignore. It’s now just a case of removing the fear of the unknown, and taking the world onto the mountains of madness.