A couple of weeks ago, I used this space to speculate about the possibility that director Ridley Scott’s forthcoming Prometheus may prove to be a kind of heady hybridizing of 2001: A Space Odyssey with Lovecraftian horror. Now comes the news that the Lovecraftian elements of Prometheus may be so close to certain key aspects of Guillermo del Toro’s long-planned and long-anticipated adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness that they may have killed the project. And this comes straight from the mouth, or rather the keyboard, of the man himself.
By now, I probably don’t need to rehash the long and winding saga of del Toro’s plan, currently approaching two decades old, to bring Lovecraft’s Madness to life as a lavish, big-budget movie with all of the monsters, horror, and gore intact, since it seems to have entered the horror and science fiction wings of contemporary pop culture as a kind of living urban lore. One of the best accounts of the whole thing was published last year by The New Yorker in a feature article/essay/profile that presented del Toro as a genuine auteur and creative genius with a defining bent for the dark fantastic. The bulk of the piece hinges on his efforts to get Madness made. In case you haven’t seen it, here are key passages that convey both the nature of del Toro’s struggle through the Hollywood minefield and the nature of the movie he hoped to make:
He had begun sketching images for an adaptation in 1993 and had completed a script in 1998. But the project had seemed too daunting; digital effects weren’t yet good enough to render creatures that changed shape far more radically than Transformers. Then, while del Toro was in Wellington, “Avatar” was released, and its landmark effects made “Madness” seem plausible. Crucially, James Cameron, a friend, had agreed to be a producer for “Madness,” sharing his expertise in designing strange worlds.
…The movie would not be an easy sell, though. Del Toro envisaged “Madness” as a “hard R” epic, shot in 3-D, with a blockbuster budget. Creating dozens of morphing creatures would be expensive, and much of the film needed to be shot somewhere that approximated Antarctica; one of the most disquieting aspects of Lovecraft’s novella is that the explorers are being pursued by monsters in a vast frozen void, and del Toro wanted to make the first horror movie on the scale of a David Lean production.
…Del Toro thought that nearly all his previous movies had conveyed “sympathy for the monsters.” With “Madness,” he said, he would terrify the audience with their malignancy. First, though, he needed to make Universal executives feel that, in allowing del Toro to design a creature-filled world, they weren’t being reckless — rather, they were commissioning a variation on “Avatar,” the most successful film in history.— Daniel Zalewski, “Show the Monster,” The New Yorker, February 7, 2011
AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS MOVIE PREVIEW (August 3, 2010):
In a supreme irony of timing, only a month after this piece conveyed a very hopeful impression of a long-awaited movie finally gaining momentum, the news circulated that del Toro and Universal Studios had experienced a parting of the ways over the film’s projected $150 million price tag, and also over the director’s insistence on making Madness as a “hard R” film with all of the violence and darkness intact. Outlets everywhere ran the story, and Mark Zalewski, who wrote the New Yorker piece, reported that del Toro had sent him “a short, mournful email” stating simply, “Madness has gone dark. The ‘R’ did us in.”
DEL TORO’S ‘AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS’ GETS AXED (March 10, 2011):
Still, as late as last summer del Toro continued to express hope that the project would get made. In June he told the Los Angeles Times,
“I’m not giving up. Mountains of Madness has been with me for 13, 14 years and I really don’t want to give up on it. Look, the movies I do, I stick with them when I think, well, if I don’t do it, nobody will…Hellboy, if I hadn’t done it, I don’t think anyone would have. Pan’s Labyrinth, same thing. Mountains of Madness, the way I plan to do it is a very peculiar take, and I think if I don’t stick with it the version I would like to see would never get made.
— “Guillermo del Toro on ‘Mountains of Madness’: ‘I’m Not Giving Up,’” Hero Complex, The Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2011
But that was ten months ago. Today, alas, it appears that del Toro has indeed given up, and that the project has gone not just dark but dormant, and perhaps even dead, and that the (inadvertent) culprit may be Prometheus. On April 30, a week after my column about Prometheus, 2001, and Lovecraftian ancient aliens appeared here, del Toro posted a message to his official fansite, DelToroFilms.com. It was titled “Prometheus/Mountains of Madness,” and it said the following:
I have been interviewed about this lately and wanted to post my two cents about this: PROMETHEUS started filming a while ago — right at the time we were in preproduction on PACIFIC RIM. The title itself gave me pause — knowing that ALIEN was heavily influenced by Lovecraft and his novella. This time, decades later with the budget and place Ridley Scott occupied, I assumed the greek [sic] metaphor alluded at the creation aspects of the HPL book. I believe I am right and if so, as a fan, I am delighted to see a new RS science fiction film, but this will probably mark a long pause — if not the demise — of ATMOM. The sad part is — I have been pursuing ATMOM for over a decade now — and, well, fter [sic] Hellboy II two projects I dearly loved were not brought to fruition for me.
— Guillermo del Toro, “Prometheus/Mountains of Madness,” DelToroFilms.com, April 30, 2012
In response to some reader comments, del Toro added further information to clarify the nature of the perceived conflict between the two films, stating, “Same premise. Scenes that would be almost identical. Both movies seem to share identical set pieces and the exact same BIG REVELATION (twist) at the end. I won’t spoil it.”
Reading these words, I feel an almost creepy sense of having been in unwitting psychic contact with the man; here’s what I wrote seven days before he posted that message:
Lovecraft’s mythos includes the idea, presented most specifically in his short novel At the Mountains of Madness, of an extraterrestrial race that came to earth many millions of years ago and built a great civilization on the Antarctic continent. They created all life on the planet, including humans — whose ancestors they may have created as a kind of accidental by-product of some other endeavor, or else as pets — and were eventually destroyed. The discovery of this awful secret about our origins and cosmic status, and indeed the basic idea of the horror inherent in “the piecing together of dissociated knowledge,” which will some day “open up…terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein” (as Lovecraft phrased it in the celebrated opening paragraph to “The Call of Cthulhu”), is a foundational part of what has come to be called the Lovecraftian worldview.
It is also, obviously, foundational to the horrors presented in Prometheus, where, so far as we can tell from the advance descriptions of the plot, the discovery of humanity’s alien origins sets in motion a catastrophe that may lead to our demise, just as in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness the discovery of the ancient alien city lets loose the force that destroyed humanity’s makers.
— Matt Cardin, “Is Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’ a Lovecraftian ‘2001’?” SF Signal, April 23, 2012
But my apparent prescience or intuition, or whatever it was, doesn’t soften the blow of losing del Toro’s take on Lovecraft’s novel, especially since, as The New Yorker‘s Zelewski reported, “Del Toro had hoped that a greenlight for ‘Madness’ would mark a new golden age for horror films,” and had been planning to use the project as a cinematic channel for an authentically Lovecraftian sense of cosmic dread: “Del Toro loves the story in part because Lovecraft combines terror — the panicked effort to escape the creatures — with metaphysical horror: ‘The book essentially says how scary it is to realize that we are a cosmic joke.'”
So now we are, I suppose, left with the hope that Prometheus will deliver these cosmic horrific philosophical-emotional goods. It’s a hope that I am fully expecting to have fulfilled, since, as I said in my last column, it’s been ages since a movie gripped me with such a sense of pure anticipation and excitement. As someone who read the version of del Toro’s screenplay for At the Mountains of Madness that circulated online a couple of years ago, I think I can guess what he’s alluding to as the “big revelation” at the end of Prometheus. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that to close Prometheus on such a note would go right in line with the events and images shown in the various trailers, and would, like Madness, recall the only other movie ever to tackle the wing of Lovecraft’s cosmic-horrific fictional universe that deals specifically with ancient aliens instead of occult/other-dimensional horrors: John Carpenter’s The Thing. And it would (will?) certainly be a marvelous way to tie up Prometheus‘ central plot and overarching/ungirding themes, at least as far as we can divine them from the pre-release materials.
But as I said, I still mourn the loss of At the Mountains of Madness, and I hope that, in an entertainment environment where remakes, retreads, and other assorted rip-offs have become the order of the day, somebody, some studio, whether Universal or another one, will see their way to backing del Toro’s magnum opus, which still has a place to be filled in the annals of horror cinema, regardless of its overlaps with Prometheus or any other film. For now, we can amuse ourselves and dream of what might have been (might be?) with the help of this well-done fan trailer: