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Foiled again! Del Toro’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ gets a red light.

March 9, 2011

Guillermo Del Toro (right) with an unidentified personal assistant.

Fans of H.P. Lovecraft fall to their knees and shout, “Nooooooooo….” today at the news Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro will not be making his proposed $150-million adaptation of the classic horror novella, At the Mountains of Madness. Somewhere Cthulu chuckles to himself.

Or perhaps the fanboys shake their fists at glowering skies, screaming, “Damn you, Universal!” That’s because it’s Universal Pictures, which gave Del Toro funding for pre-production costs, that has pulled the plug on the project, citing the difficulties in earning a profit on a big-budget horror movie.

Del Toro emailed Daniel Zalewski at the New Yorker yesterday with the news: “Madness has gone dark. The ‘R’ did us in.” In February Zalewski produced a major profile of Del Toro for the magazine, detailing his creative progress from a nerdy Mexican fanboy to the Oscar-winning director of the disturbing, deeply inventive Spanish anti-fascist fantasy, Pan’s Labyriinth.

Much of Zalewski’s profile concerned Del Toro’s plans to bring At the Mountains of Madness to the screen as a big-budget horror film. James Cameron was attached as a producer, the better to film in 3-D, while Tom Cruise was said to be set to star.

None of these gaudy names could save the project, however. Apparently Universal thinks Madness has no faith a horror movie, especially one with an “R” rating, could  earn the $500 needed to break even. Del Toro refused to compromise with a more marketable “PG” rating.

Horror is not generally considered a “tent-pole” genre, with only a few exceptions: The Birds, Alien, The Shining.

Universal’s decision continues a bad run for Del Toro. When Pan’s Labyrinth snagged three technical Oscars plus noms for Best Screeplay and Best Foreign Film in 2007, Del Toro seemed poised to become the rare filmmaker, like Cameron or Peter Jackson, with the juice to make any picture he wants.

After an almost excessively creative Hellboy II, however, Del Toro spent two years in pre-production on The Hobbit before he quit, citing delays and the lack of a start date. This freed him to concentrate on Madness, which he calls his “dream project.”

Matt Goldberg at collider.com reports Del Toro is now likely to sign on to direct the more conventional sci-fi actioner Pacific Rim, which seems to be a standard alien invasion movie. Perhaps if the director produces a Hollywood blockbuster, proving he can make big money for the studios, Universal may be more willing to finance Madness.

H.P. Lovecraft: Just think how scary the stories must be.

This seems especially likely when you consider the reaction of Adam Fogelson, Universal’s chairman, to the visual presentation mounted for him by Del Toro and Cameron. As Zalewski reports, “He called del Toro’s presentation ‘one of the more extraordinary and gratifying professional experiences I have had.'”

The real odd man out here is Lovecraft, the eccentric and reclusive Rhode Island writer who drew very little attention before his death in 1937, but who has become the most influential horror writer since Edgar Allen Poe. His images and ideas can be seen in books, paintings and movies by Stephen King, Ridley Scott, Peter Straub, H.R. Giger, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, Clive Barker and, of course, Del Toro.

Yet Lovecraft himself is where Elmore Leonard was before Get Shorty — no good movie has been made from his own work.  Dozens and dozens have tried, but the the ones I’ve seen are woefully inadequate cheese fests, like The Dunwich Horror (2009), which inexplicably moves the story from New England to Louisiana and wastes Jeffrey Combs, one of the undersung great character actors of our day.

The one possible exception may be 1987’s Re-Animator, based on the short story “Hebert West, Re-Animator.” I haven’t seen it, but I do know it enjoys a certain reputation among Lovecraft enthusiasts.

Perhaps Del Toro will yet show us how it’s done. If not, then I suppose there are worse things than letting Lovecraft frolic where he always has, in the dark caverns of the reader’s mind. That’s the scariest place in the known universe anyway.

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