DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is a long-overdue return to the big haunted house movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Set on a sprawling, autumnal New England estate that should instantly evoke childhood nightmares, it relies heavily on atmosphere and a fear of unreasonably spacious basements to work the viewer over. But the menace doesn’t stop at the basement; it extends to every shadowy corner of this film’s enormous, seemingly-designed-by-Evil mansion, and, most disconcertingly, straight down a narrow abyss to an unseen realm governed by ugly little beasts desperate for a new playmate - and once they’re set free from their cellar prison, they’ll stop at nothing to claim one.
This is, of course, a remake of the memorable ABC TV movie that freaked out a whole generation of horror fans back in 1973. One of these fans was a nine-year-old Guillermo del Toro, who, given the then-absence of video cassette recorders, was forced to commit every frightening moment to memory. Over the years, his imagination got the better of him, leading to embellishment and, ultimately, the development of his own version of the John Newland-directed, Nigel McKeand-scripted original.
While the 1973 yarn had Kim Darby frantically trying to convince her husband that she was being stalked by tiny monsters with raisiny noggins, Del Toro’s story is told largely from the point of view of a neglected little girl (Bailee Madison) who’s been passed over to her preoccupied architect father (Guy Pearce) by her Hollywood scene-hopping mom. Finally, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is – bullshit R-rating be damned - the kid-skewing horror flick it should’ve been all along, a girl-who-cried-monster tale that will give ten-year-olds nightmares for weeks.
Though del Toro is only credited as a producer and co-writer on DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, the sensibility is entirely his – meaning it’s as close to a new del Toro movie as we’re going to get until July 2013, which is when his shrouded-in-secrecy kaiju epic, PACIFIC RIM, is due in theaters. That’ll make it seven years in between movies for one of our most talented filmmakers, a delay that’s flat-out heartbreaking when you consider how close he came to realizing his dream project, an unflinchingly faithful adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic novella AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS.
As you’ll read in the below interview, del Toro is still smarting a little from Universal Studios’ last-second halting of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, but he is boldly moving forward with PACIFIC RIM. Del Toro knows what’s at stake here, and he is throwing all of his considerable creative energies into designing the “finest fucking monsters” and “greatest fucking robots” ever seen on the big screen. While he wasn’t in an elaborative mood with regards to PACIFIC RIM’s story when we spoke via phone a week ago (for fear of giving too much away way too early), he was more than happy to talk about DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, the future of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, his in-development of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (starring Emma Watson) and, finally, his favorite movie monsters.
Mr. Beaks: What was your introduction to the DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK? How long have you been aware of the TV movie?
Guillermo del Toro: I saw it right when it premiered. I was nine or ten years old when it premiered on TV and back. That was the golden era of TV movies, and more than anything with horror and suspense. You were getting good stuff in the ‘70s by Dan Curtis. He did TRILOGY OF TERROR, NIGHT STALKER, NIGHT STRANGLER and THE NORLISS TAPES. And then you were getting things like DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, or Spielberg was doing DUEL.
The horror movie of the week for us back then was a big deal. I don’t think there’s anything comparable now. We gathered around the TV, and we saw it right when it came on. Back then, it was the scariest thing we had ever seen. I mean, we were groomed on NIGHT GALLERY - and we were definitely not expecting [DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK] to be that scary with that downbeat ending. It had a lot of stuff going for it that was interesting. It made a huge impression. I was obsessed for years, and I’ve been obsessed for years to the point that about three years ago, before I made the movie, I put an offer on the house from the original TV movie, which is in California. I wanted to buy the house to turn it into Bleak House, my man-cave. Unfortunately, it’s a little too far from LA, but I still have hopes one day of owning that house.
Beaks: (Laughs) But will you walk down into the basement with the lights off?
Del Toro: (Laughs) Probably not. But it became a matter of absolute obsession, this movie. For many many years and as I said, this is the around the time you were getting BAD RONALD. Even Spielberg did a scary movie called SOMETHING EVIL, and all of these movies nested in my brain. I would have loved to have worked in that format. It was very creative, very free. So I wanted to make something that evoked that spirit. Back in those days we didn’t have VHS or video, so there was no way to see the movie again. So from the age of nine or ten, when I saw it, until the age of twenty or so, I kept recounting the story to my friends verbally. You told your friends at school, and you talked to people who had not seen it and people that had seen it. And through the years, I came up with a few ideas that, when I finally saw the movie again, I realized they were not in the original movie. I had invented them. (Laughs) So when the time came, I personally chased the rights to the movie. I got the rights for myself on my own in the ‘90s, and I co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Robbins in 1998. So this project has been with me for sixteen years, more or less.
Beaks: I probably first saw the movie when I was six or seven years old, and it terrified me. And because I saw it at such a young age, I’ve always thought of it as a children’s horror movie – even though the story is about adults. But your film is, I think, for kids. It’s going to scare the crap out of them, and give them nightmares, but I think it’s something that they will really enjoy once they’ve endured it.
Del Toro: That was the original intention of this version, to make it PG-13. But the MPAA said it was “pervasively scary”. They said it was not about cutting this or cutting that; it was about the movie being scary and adult, and the intensity level of that fear, so they gave us a hard R. There’s no nudity, no profanity, no graphic violence, but they just felt that way. Frankly, that was one of the last battles this movie had to wage, which is when Miramax got sold for the third time. We were trying to get the movie to the screen without it being mutilated in a PG-13 form you know, so we found FilmDistrict, who agreed to distribute it intact - not cut, not PG-13. We were fortunate to preserve it this way.
Beaks: How do you feel about children watching horror films? At what age do you think they could handle your version of DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK?
Del Toro: Frankly, I’m the worst person to ask this question. In other words, I have never had a normal life to have a real parallel. My children, personally, whenever they want to watch a horror movie, I’m delighted, but I have two girls, so they don’t like the genre as much as I do. But, for example, we play very graphic horror video games together, so I am not the president of the parenting board. As far as I’m concerned, horror movies are great; monsters are an integral part of childhood for me. I don’t know. I would be the worst judge for this socially.
Beaks: How did you arrive at the design of the monsters and their portrayal? As you’ve said, they’re little assholes
Del Toro: We went to Bleak House, which is my home office, and we locked up Troy Nixey and a painter called Chet Zar and an illustrator called Keith Thompson. I would show up in the morning and talk to them; they would show me what they had done, I’d give them a couple of ideas, then left them. Then I came back in the afternoon and saw what they were doing, and all of a sudden there was a very quick domino between Chet and Keith and then finally Troy. And Troy is one of the best illustrators working today in the comic field; he came up with the final look. But what we agreed upon, since we were changing the origin of the creatures, and we were changing the basic setup of the characters… we were changing so much that I thought it would be great if we could honor the design of the creatures originally, which was very quirky and strange. They had this hairy body and sort of prune-like faces. They looked like little mini-mummies, with hairy bodies. We wanted to update that design, but also honor it. Troy was the true architect of that. He did the definitive design on the pictures. And then what we did was to make a maquette and make different faces, so that the bodies would be more or less the same, but with little changes. I thought they came out really great. In an oblique way, I set up the movie in Lovecraft territory, because I think in an oblique way the characters are also an homage to “Dreams in the Witch House”, a short story by Lovecraft that has a character who has the body of a rat and the face of a man. There’s this little character called Brown Jenkins, who is really, really creepy.
Beaks: I’m just going to very inelegantly jump to talking about kaiju. Are you reinventing this genre right now [with PACIFIC RIM]?
Del Toro: No, I can’t say very much because I’m being closely watched. What we are doing is trying to honor the kaiju genre, which I love, but we are not using any of the famous kaiju, like Godzilla. We are just inventing kaijus right now, and we have a great, great group of designers working on it. When I was a kid, I used to draw robots and monsters, and then I would do sort of cut-views of them, so I would see the internal structure of the robot; I would have a little area for the fuel, another area for the gears, another area for… you kind of broke down the robot, and all of the parts and all of the organs and all of that. Now we are doing that day-in and day-out twenty-four-seven; we are doing it for real. I think that’s what is great, to make one of these movies with a very sharp eye towards spectacle and detail.
Beaks: Are you going for something very photoreal, very realistic? Or is this more stylized? What’s the aesthetic?
Del Toro: I think that if you know the kaiju style… kaijus are essentially outlandish in a way, but on the other hand they come sort of in families: you’ve got the reptilian kaiju, the insect kaiju, the sort of crustacean kaiju. They come in almost quite defined families. So to take an outlandish design and then render it with an attention to real animal anatomy and detail is interesting.
Beaks: Are we going to see anything like the Gargantuas in this movie?
Del Toro: (Laughs) I love the Gargantuas and I love FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, but no nothing like that.
Beaks: I’m really curious about what this film means for your career. You’ve been keeping very busy, but projects have come and gone, and it must be really frustrating, Do you feel like PACIFIC RIM is the movie where you’re going to kick down the door and say, “Alright motherfuckers, let me do what I do.”
Del Toro: I think so. I mean, that’s the whole purpose of getting involved with it. I started getting involved with it much earlier; eight or nine months before I came on board as the director, I was on as producer, and I was plotting the movie with Travis [Beacham]. We were designing the world, so as to have a sort of bible of it. And the moment when the possibility arose of me actually taking over as director, it was, to me, a complete blessing. I love what we are doing with this. I think by the time we go to shoot, it will be four years almost since I’ve directed - three years for sure - so I welcome it. I love it. I was really shaken by the MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, the debacle; it was really difficult. But I’m adoring what we are doing, and I’m having a blast. In between, there were other movies that were lurking at that time other than PACIFIC RIM, but I chose PACIFIC RIM precisely because it’s a perfect match with what I want to do. The scale of it is fantastic.
Beaks: But how are you not going to do AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS after this movie? It’s got to be done, right?
Del Toro: Yeah, you know, I think that what I want to do is make sure… [MOUNTAINS] has been with me for so long, that I want to make sure that we go into it with a studio that supports the right rating, the right format, and that it’s done the right way. But I quit making plans like that, because the last few years have taught me that the more you make plans, the more God laughs at you.
But let me be very clear: I will do anything to do MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS the right way. It was a very hard decision not to compromise on the rating from the get-go. I still think the movie could end up being PG-13, but look at the issues we had with DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK; we calculated it to be PG-13, and we didn’t get the PG-13. I don’t want to risk it; I don’t want to have a conversation about cutting intensity in MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS. It’s the Mount Everest of the weird tale; it’s one of Lovecraft’s most cherished works. I think there are four or five titles of Lovecraft that you have to approach with incredible caution, you know?
Beaks: Real quick: this version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST that you’re developing for Emma Watson, how are you approaching it? Going up against the Disney version is one thing, but you are also up against Cocteau’s version, which is such an iconic and masterful film. How do you stand apart from that film?
Del Toro: Well, listen, I’m trying not to talk about projects that are so much in the future, because it’s been very painful in the last three years to do that. But I can just tell you I’m not trying to do the Cocteau film; I’m trying to do something different. It would be foolish to try and stick by the rules Cocteau created for his universe. With those rules nobody can win. I mean, he is already the master; it’s a perfect film. But I think the tale has many interpretations. In fact, when you go back to folklore, you find the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST tale under many, many guises. You can find it in Eastern European folklore, you can find it in German folklore, and you can find it in many incarnations before it comes to the shape it is in the French version of the story. So I’m going to try and honor it in a different way. We have been talking about it for a while, and it’s a universe that is incredibly tempting for me. I love the dark and beautiful fairy tale universe, as you know, and I really hope it comes true. At this stage, I’m going to start making it a point not to talk too much about projects that are not in preproduction, because it’s very hard to do it without just things becoming a heartbreak if they don’t happen.
Beaks: Okay, so here’s the last question. This is an easy one. Do you have a favorite movie monster?
Del Toro: If you come to Bleak House, the things that you would find over and over again is a long list. But I would say Frankenstein, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and [H.R. Giger’s] Alien are the most beautiful monsters ever. But you would also find in the house life-size reproductions of the characters from FREAKS, every Harryhausen monster ever made, all different interpretations of the Wolf Man, and so on and so forth. I have a house full of monsters, so that’s pretty hard, but if I had to say the three designs that I think are perfect in terms of man in the suit or makeup, I would say Frankenstein, Alien, and Creature From the Black Lagoon are absolutely mind blowing.
Beaks: I would agree. Especially the Creature. I’ve always loved the Creature.
Del Toro: Creature is the most perfect man-in-a-suit creation ever. I think the original Alien is very, very close by, but it doesn’t get better. And Frankenstein is just a perfect match of makeup and that performer. And when I say “Frankenstein”, I obviously mean the creature - let me not make the semantic mistake, though everyone calls it that. I think that Karloff doesn’t get the recognition he deserves as how great an actor he was. He is not just a monster. When you see him in THE BODY SNATCHER or THE BLACK ROOM or Peter Bogdanovich’s TARGETS… the guy is a fantastic actor. I love Boris Karloff. Perhaps he and Peter Cushing are my favorite horror actors.
Beaks: Why Cushing?
Del Toro: Cushing didn’t play monsters that often, Arthur Grimsdyke in TALES FROM THE CRYPT is fantastic as a cadaver, but Cushing was a very subtle actor. He was a very delicate actor, and, in a strange way, so was Boris Karloff. He was capable of great nuance and very delicate gestures. I think he was fantastic. I think in order to honor him properly, people should remember all of his characters, not just [Frankenstein] you know?
Beaks: He is amazing in THE BODY SNATCHER. That’s one I’m constantly recommending.
Del Toro: And incredible nuanced. Incredibly menacing, but incredibly underplayed performance. He is amazing in that movie - absolutely terrifying with barely anything. He just has an air of menace. He was fantastic.
Soon after I got off the phone with del Toro, he sent me an email asking that I include Godzilla and Rob Bottin’s The Thing in his list of favorite monsters. So he doesn’t have a favorite monster; he has five.
The very scary, and, I think, kid-friendly DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK hits theaters this Friday, August 26th. Check it out. PACIFIC RIM is currently scheduled for July 12, 2013. As for AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS... write your congressman.