[28 July 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
So, he saunters into Comic Con, that once formidable fortress of geek love, and announces his next project post-Hobbit. Yes, nerd nation is overly depressed by the announcement a few months back that ongoing financial issues with co-rights holder MGM is forcing one of their favorite filmmakers out of the planned two-prequel adaption of the Tolkein treasure. Yes, they are a little appeased when they hear - perhaps a tad too gun-jumpingly, that Peter Jackson will “probably” take over (note from ‘Derek’ to one Harry Knowles: “not so fast…”). Still, what many amongst the great undate-able were wondering is what, exactly, would Guillermo Del Toro do next? What project called his name so loudly that he had to leave New Zealand and zoom right back to the loving arms of Hollywood? Apparently, it’s an adaptation of Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride.
Let’s just let that concept sink in for a moment…
Yep, old good guy Guillermo, a Mexican maverick schooled in the ways of Dan Curtis’ Night Stalker and Universal/Hammer horrors, has returned from what was more or less a sure thing to tread in the territory that Eddie Murphy already soiled some seven years ago. Initially reports had him doing the multi-hypen thing - adapt, produce, write, and direct. Now, apparently cooler Latino heads have prevailed and Mr. Hellboy is only functioning behind the scenes. Still, it seems unconscionably dumb to hang your future fortunes on the House of Mouse and their franchise adaptations. So far, only Pirates of the Caribbean shows any commercial legs. Attempts at bringing Mission to Mars, the aforementioned spook show, and the recent reprehensible Sorcerer’s Apprentice revamp have all failed rather spectacularly.
Of course, Del Toro has his own bankability issues to deal with. He doesn’t bring the most sound box office clout along with his considerable artistic ambition. Looking over his limited canon - Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy II: The Golden Army - one does grow a wee bit concerned over his ability to sway an audience. Neither of his takes on Mike Mignola’s comic book character have met with blockbuster success, and he did deliver the best film of the otherwise below average Wesley Snipes vampire action hero franchise. Oddly enough, he’s been far more successful when he’s been serious, turning his World War II dark fables - Backbone and Labyrinth - into solid cinema and awards season contenders.
It’s when he stays behind the scenes that his choices can be more questionable. The Orphanage (which he produced) was great, While She Was Out (a dull Kim Bassinger thriller) was not. Rudy y Cursi was barely screened in the West. Splice, unfortunately, was. He does show a little promise with an upcoming version of the classic ABC Movie of the Week title Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, but unless you look at his more ambitious side, you’re hard pressed to find a lot to celebrate. In some camps, Del Toro is often referred to as the very example of a modern filmmaking, newly clothed “emperor”. He has a few trophies in his massive case, but nothing to suggest the kind of broad sweeping benevolence his every move makes. Even post-Hobbit, he seems poised to be forgiven and embraced all over again. That’s the web-based world we live in.
That’s because Del Toro knows the Internet score. He’s got the ‘Net nerd by the shorthairs and pulls them playfully like the puppermaster he is. He’s not a bad guy, just an incessantly smart one. He has seen the way in which the nu-media twist and turn each snippet of semi-news like wind socks in a hurricane and figures he’d rather be the one bringing the breeze. The aforementioned red-headed AICN nebbish is his email buddy. He sells his wares to the Comic-Con crowd like the amiable huckster he is. Right now, he’s got four mouth-breather delights lined up for potential post-Haunted hit making - a Frankenstein and/or Dr. Jeykll update, something called Drood, a remake of Slaughterhouse Five, and H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Like Sam Raimi, another talented director who seems attached to more movies than he actually ends up making, Del Toro’s arc is tantalizing in its possibilities.
But potential does not a classic make. Just ask Mr. Evil Dead when he went from helming Spider-man 4 to being booted off the superhero franchise and forced to…team up with Disney to do a Wizard of Oz prequel (that noise you heard was Dweeb Central sighing “huh?”). Along with a World of Warcraft translation and a supernatural Western, he’s also been touted as Del Toro’s replacement on… The Hobbit. In a world seemingly slathered with synchronicity, such a reversal of filmmaking fortunes would indeed be odd (after all, Del Toro beat out Raimi as a studio favorite when the Tolkein titles were announced). It’s enough to make one’s head spin.
If he’s not careful, the man who put Mexico on the post-modern map might just promise himself into irrelevancy. As the typical Tinseltown journeymen helm their way toward bigger and bigger projects, being picky and choosy while staying true to your fanboy faithful could end up turning you into an afterthought. Like such star shy stalwarts as David Lynch or Terrance Malick, being fastidious hasn’t dampened their reputation, just their regular funding. Each could probably get a financier to back their latest flight of fancy, but they represent the upper echelon of their archetype. Del Toro’s not there yet - and making a Haunted Mansion movie isn’t going to guarantee his probably placement in same. It will take a couple of more trips through a particular labyrinth before he earns such a status.
Until then, his thought process remains elusively intriguing. The man has vision - no argument there - and controls it better than anyone (just look at 90% of Hellboy II for proof) and there is no doubting his ability to pull off that rarest of cinematic trifectas - a film that’s a financial, critical, and franchise ready blockbuster. He’s perhaps the closest thing to a true geek God in the current crew of fanboy favorites. He sure knows how to stir their respective grits, goading them along a path less beaten than brief in its intended lasting viability. There are some directors who’ve lived their entire lives based solely on the notion of what could have been. With something as potentially silly as a Haunted Mansion movie in his current sights, Guillermo Del Toro has laid another brick in that erratic foundation. If he doesn’t straighten things up soon, he might see his entire House of Title Cards come crashing down.