Welcome to Revisionist History, a column that has nothing better to do, we promise. In this edition, we consider the alternate-universe existence of Guillermo del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness.
An adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness was a decade-long dream project for Guillermo del Toro by the time he got round to it. The story, which chronicles an Antarctic expedition that leads to the discovery of ancient creatures, always appealed to his appetite for the fantastical. If anyone was going to bring Lovecraft’s seemingly unfilmable novella to the screen, it was Hollywood’s resident ghoul enthusiast.
In 2006, del Toro set about turning that dream into a reality. The director penned a script with Matthew Robbins, but Warner Bros. balked at the hefty $150 million price tag and cynical story. But del Toro refused to compromise the darkness of the Lovecraft universe to appease major studios. The project was subsequently shelved as del Toro became preoccupied with The Hobbit and Hellboy II: The Golden Army for the next four years.
Fast forward to 2010, and the project is rescued from development hell by James Cameron and Universal Pictures. The Titanic director signs on as a producer. Then Tom Cruise agrees to star as Dyer, the professor who leads the grand expedition into the icy hellscape. With some serious clout behind him, del Toro proceeds to make the movie in 3D.
In an interview with FearNet (via Slashfilm), Cameron opens up about what fans can expect from the long-gestating adaptation. According to the producer, it’s going to be a visual treat that boasts some truly remarkable effects.
“The design work is phenomenal — both the three-dimensional and two-dimensional design work, the physical maquettes, the CG test scenes; the artwork is phenomenal. The fans certainly won’t want for a visual feast with this film.”
Universal isn’t too happy about the proposed R rating. The film isn’t guaranteed to be a commercial success due to its horrific content. Del Toro doesn’t plan on holding back with the discomforting nastiness either. He’s out to make a grungy horror film in the vein of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, albeit with lavish blockbuster production values.
Del Toro also reveals that The Birds is an influence on the vibe he’s trying to capture. Especially in regard to using state-of-the-art effects to make Lovecraft’s disturbing vision more appealing to the masses. Audiences love horror when it looks good.
“[‘The Birds’] was a major filmmaker using cutting-edge optical technology and special effects. It was a big-budget movie. It had Edith Head designing costumes, it had all the luxuries. And it was appealing because it had all the polished aspects of a studio film.”
Adam Fogelson, the chairman of Universal Pictures, is eventually sold on the project after a presentation from the filmmakers. He describes it as “one of the more extraordinary and gratifying professional experiences I have had” and greenlights the costly motion picture. It’s a risk he’s willing to take as del Toro and company know what they’re doing.
The film hits theaters in 2012 and proves to be a faithful adaptation for the most part. The movie follows the plot of the novella closely. It also explores Lovecraft’s themes of existential dread and cosmic horror with aplomb. But del Toro also understands that moviegoers want to see monsters and action, so the movie features an appearance from Cthulu. His presence is threatened in the novella, but the creature doesn’t show up.
Some Lovecraft enthusiasts aren’t happy with the decision to show the monster. The naysayers note that it removes some of the nuances of the source material. But del Toro doesn’t abandon the author’s sensibilities to please Hollywood. At the Mountains of Madness is drenched in the doomy atmosphere and claustrophobic terror that Lovecraft’s work is synonymous with, which is enhanced courtesy of the immersive qualities of the 3D technology.
The film doesn’t break box office records, but it proves to be a slow-burn success story. Horror fans realize that At the Mountains of Madness is a gift that should be celebrated. No major studio will go all-in with an authentic Lovecraft feature for years to come. This type of risk-taking doesn’t happen regularly. Over time, the movie develops a strong cult audience. Such is the case with most del Toro films.
Unfortunately, the film’s release ultimately kills Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. The similarities between At the Mountains of Madness and the Alien prequel are uncanny. Releasing both around the same time isn’t a smart idea from a business perspective, so Scott moves on to other projects. Alien: Covenant never happens either, and no one complains.
What really happened?
Guillermo Del Toro tried to shop At the Mountains of Madness around Hollywood, but no studio was willing to back his vision with a substantial budget unless he made some changes. Warner Bros. didn’t want to make a dark horror movie that didn’t have a romantic subplot or romance ending. Universal, meanwhile, was only willing to support a PG-13 version of the story.
Prometheus didn’t help the film’s chances either. Del Toro said that Scott’s film killed his dream project. The plots and themes of both movies were supposedly too similar, and their climaxes were almost identical. The Alien franchise was always inspired by Lovecraft’s mythos. Any similarities between Prometheus and At the Mountains of Madness were likely coincidental.
At the Mountains of Madness falling apart led to great opportunities for del Toro. He went on to make Pacific Rim in 2013, which scored him a major hit and spawned a franchise. That put him on the path to Oscar glory with The Shape of Water.
Del Toro hasn’t forgotten about his Lovecraft adaptation, though. This is the one project he can’t say goodbye to. In a recent interview with IndieWire, he said that he’ll keep trying to get it made until he’s dead and buried. Hopefully, Netflix will step in and let him make it long before then. The streamer greenlit his dream stop-motion Pinocchio movie, after all. Maybe they’ll give this one some backing too?