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The Best Horror Movie Never Made: Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’

This week, Guillermo del Toro’s gothic-horror-romance Crimson Peak will haunt movie theaters across the land. It joins the unique crowd of del Toro projects that makes it to the screen instead of vanishing into development oblivion. Del Toro is always cooking something up, and his name is frequently being thrown around for various films that never quite materialize: he’s been working on-again/off-again on a Haunted Mansion film; then there’s the DC Comics adaptation Justice League Dark. Pacific Rim 2 keeps jumping back and forth between being in development and being put on hold. The filmmaker was even going to direct the first of The Hobbit films before things changed, and we ended up with a bloated trilogy filled with nonsense. But the holy grail of unmade Guillermo del Toro films is his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

Lovecraft’s stories were, in general, short. They were verbose and sprawling yet he managed to fit all of his cosmic terror onto two or three pages. At the Mountains of Madness was different. The story bloomed into a novella, and was rejected by Lovecraft’s usual stomping grounds, Weird Tales magazine. It was a story brimming with Lovecraft’s usual staples such as the Elder Gods, nameless terrors and foolish men who tamper where they should not. Miskatonic University geology professor William Dyer leads a team of men to Antarctica, where the company discovers massive ruins and evidence of ancient life forms once worshipped as gods. Also, if that’s not enough to give you the creeps, the story also features six-foot-tall penguins! Elements of At the Mountains of Madness had been cherry-picked for films before — John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien and Prometheus being three prime examples. But there has never been a film adaptation of the actual material.

Del Toro and Matthew Robbins wrote a script for At the Mountains of Madness in 2006, and del Toro envisioned it as a massive R-rated horror extravaganza. Such a concept is a dream come true for both del Toro and horror fans, but it gives studio executives a different type of heebie jeebies: they don’t want to finance that type of horror film. Just recently, Cary Fukunaga left his long-developed film adaptation of Stephen King’s It. “I was trying to make an unconventional horror film,” Fukunaga told Variety (http://variety.com/2015/film/news/cary-fukunaga-it-exit-1201584416/). “It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience.” That same mentality played hell with del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness. Warner Brothers were the first to reject the project, which resulted in it finding a possible home at Universal.

As At the Mountains of Madness continued its long road to being greenlit, Deadline revealed that self-professed King of the World and future maker of many unwanted Avatar sequels James Cameron would produce the film and that it would be released in 3D. A few months later, Collider broke the news that while Universal was keen to see James McAvoy as the lead of the film, del Toro had a grander vision: Tom Cruise. And surprisingly enough, Cruise eventually became attached to the project. You’d think a huge James Cameron produced, Tom Cruise-starring film would be a safe bet for a studio green light, but you’d be incorrect.

Universal was not happy with the proposed $150 million budget and R rating for At the Mountains of Madness, and del Toro wasn’t budging: he wanted his R rating. Deadline reported that “Del Toro and his team…delivered a stunning visual presentation that met the studio’s budget specifications,” yet Universal remained “wary” about the price and the rating.

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The project remained in limbo, and the only glimpse the general public got of it was through various bits of concept art del Toro created, some of which appeared on a Reddit thread. Del Toro went on to make Pacific Rim and eventually Crimson Peak. But At the Mountains of Madness remained his dream project, so much so that as recently as 2014 he was still holding out hope the film would happen, even going so far as to concede to a PG-13 rating. In July of 2014, del Toro told Collider “I would like to…shoot it, as dark as it is, in an unrated cut and a PG-13 cut. Ideally they would be released simultaneously if that’s at all possible…Lovecraft was famous for suggestion, and a lot of the piece can suggest, but there are [certain moments] you need to show. Part of it is budget, part of it is rating.” Del Toro had hopes that with the modern PG-13 rating, you could get away with a lot more than you could a few years ago. But he also didn’t want to fully compromise. “The one thing I’ll say is that at this stage for me, [At the] Mountains [of Madness] is not made. So I’d rather make it in a way that doesn’t compromise the content, or not do it.” Will del Toro ever get to venture to the Mountains of Madness? Never say never. The filmmakers Crimson Peak is a Universal release with a well-earned R-rating. Perhaps if it scares up Cthulhu-sized box office numbers studio execs will be less squeamish, and del Toro will finally get to lead his dream expedition to Lovecraft’s Antarctica, and hang out with those six-foot-tall penguins, after all. One can dream.


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