Guillermo del Toro spent 20 years trying to bring horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness to the big screen. Why did Ridley Scott’s Prometheus finally force him to abandon the project earlier this year? And might Mountains—like the book’s ancient monsters—yet come back from the dead?
(Warning: This article contains Prometheus spoilers.)
Guillermo del Toro was around 11 years old when he first read H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Originally penned by the legendary horror writer in 1931, the story tells of an Antarctic expedition which unearths the presumed long dead bodies of strange, starfish-headed creatures—only for the specimens to wake up, slaughter their discoverers, and dissect one of them like a laboratory rat. By the tale’s conclusion, a pair of surviving expedition members has found out that these scientifically-inclined “Old Ones” are members of an ancient alien race who were responsible for creating our simian ancestors as well as even more dangerous beings called “Shoggoths” which, the narrator fears, may yet emerge from their subterranean lair with apocalyptic results.
Packed with horror, terror, and Lovecraft’s trademark sense of cosmic wonder, At the Mountains of Madness is wild stuff even if you’re an adult. Its effect was titanic on the young del Toro. “I became absolutely obsessed with [Lovecraft],” the Mexican-born director would recall in 2010, “and the notion of being created as a joke, as a cosmic joke, and humanity being given free will and ambition as you would give catnip to a cat, to amuse yourselves.”
Del Toro’s obsession would prove an enduring one. Over the past two decades the director of the two Hellboy films and the Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth has repeatedly attempted to bring Mountains to the big screen, only for studios to balk at the project’s costly elements—Antarctica! Monsters! Period-setting!—and del Toro’s insistence the film needs both a downbeat ending and an R-rating to truly serve Lovecraft’s vision.
Two years ago, the movie looked set to go at Universal with del Toro’s longtime friend James Cameron signed on as producer and Tom Cruise the likely star. In the end, that effort turned to ashes. Finally, in April, del Toro effectively announced he was throwing in the towel. The final straw came not from cautious studio executives but from the dramatic and thematic similarities del Toro suspected might exist between Mountains and director Ridley Scott’s then-forthcoming Prometheus. On April 30, del Toro posted a message on his official website stating that he believed Prometheus was going to echo the “creation aspects” of At the Mountains of Madness. The director wrote that, if he was proven correct, Scott’s film would “probably mark a long pause—if not the demise—of ATMOM.”
As audiences discovered this weekend when Prometheus opened to big box office numbers, the film, like Lovecraft’s story, does indeed track the adventures of a scientific expedition who discover that an ancient alien race were responsible for creating our ancestors—as well as a race of monsters which seem more than capable of wiping out humanity. Certainly the new, aquatic aliens introduced in the film will ring bells with fans of Lovecraft whose most infamous creation, the monstrous “Cthulhu,” is described in another of the author’s yarns as resembling “an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature.”
While no one is suggesting Scott and his screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof plagiarized either Lovecraft or del Toro’s take on the material, there’s little doubt the movie fulfills the Hellboy director’s worst fears in terms of the two projects’ similarities.
The cosmos seem to have played a particularly cruel and ironic joke on both Cameron and del Toro. The former, of course, turned the Alien franchise into a franchise with 1986’s Aliens while the latter is a huge fan of Ridley Scott’s original movie. Indeed, del Toro is well aware the Alien movies have always featured a large amount of HPL in its DNA. “I think there is a huge Lovecraftian influence, and a huge At the Mountains of Madness influence on the first Ridley Scott Alien,” the director declared in Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, a 2008 documentary about the author. “The idea that they find a derelict, city-sized ship, dead denizens in it, and something that is very much alive and waiting and then takes over the humans. That’s essentially, you could say very much, in the Mountains of Madness.”
Next: “What you need is the cinematic equivalent of Lovecraft’s prose: That’s very hard to achieve.”
The Alien movies are far from the only fear flicks to be influenced by Lovecraft. The impact of his so-called “Cthulhu mythos”—an alternative universe of incomprehensibly powerful god-monsters, which Lovecraft developed over many stories—can be felt in such non-Lovecraft adaptations as John Carpenter’s movies The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, and even the Pirates of the Caribbean films, whose half-human, half-octopus villain Davy Jones owes a clear debt to Lovecraft’s obsession with tentacled terror. You can even throw in the Batman franchise as the name of Gotham City’s supervillain-incarcerating Arkham Asylum derives from a fictional Massachusetts town featured or namechecked in several Lovecraft tales, including Mountains.
Lovecraft’s enduring influence—one that extends to books, comics, TV shows, rock music, video games, and even Cthulhu plush toys—would have come as a huge surprise to the author himself, who garnered precious little acclaim or financial reward during his lifetime. Lovecraft, who was born in 1890, had a dim view of his writing talents and declined to even submit his longest literary effort, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, to the pulp magazines, such as Weird Tales, which were the principal publishers of his work during the author’s lifetime. Lovecraft’s low opinion of his stories was reinforced by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright who rejected a couple of the author’s stories, including, for reasons of length, At the Mountains of Madness. The tale was finally serialized by another magazine, Astounding Stories, in the spring of 1936. But at the time of Lovecraft’s death from cancer the following year the writer remained almost completely unknown to the public.
In 1939, two of Lovecraft’s writer acquaintances—August Derleth and Donald Wandrei—established the Arkham House publishing company specifically to gift their late friend’s work a wider audience and that year put on sale the a collection of the author’s stories, The Outsider and Others. An omnibus featuring around a hundred tales and called Beyond the Wall of Sleep followed in 1941. Neither were huge sellers—in fact, only 1,217 copies of Beyond the Wall of Sleep were printed due to wartime restrictions—but over time Lovecraft’s reputation began to grow, particularly amongst other writers.
Psycho author Robert Bloch was an early disciple of Lovecraft, with whom he had corresponded as a teenager, and was one of the first scribes of many scribes to utilize, and expand, the Cthulhu mythos. Other authors to have dared enter Lovecraft’s alternative universe include Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. In his 1981 non-fiction horror tome Danse Macabre, the Shining author encouraged readers to recall that it is Lovecraft’s “shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”
Filmmaker Roger Corman, ever atune to hip, teen-friendly trends, directed 1963’s The Haunted Palace, an adaptation of the posthumously published The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and, in 1970, also produced the big screen version of another Lovecraft tale, The Dunwich Horror. But it was a pair of Cthulhu-adoring UCLA film students named Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter who would properly introduce cinemagoers to the author’s horror tropes, starting with their 1974 sci-fi film Dark Star. Although an original creation, the film is suffused with a sense of cosmic awe that owes much to Lovecraft, even if the low budget movie’s beach ball alien looks like something one might find in a seaside gift emporium than on some distant planet.
O’Bannon and Carpenter fell out after Dark Star and never collaborated again, but both would return to the H.P. well for inspiration. While Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing is officially an adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 tale “Who Goes There?” Campbell himself may have been influenced by Mountains, given he took over the editorship of Astounding Stories the year after the magazine published Lovecraft’s tale. Certainly the movie’s monster, in large part the work of effects wunderkind Rob Bottin, wouldn’t seem remotely out of place in the universe of Cthulhu. Carpenter paid more obvious homage to Lovecraft with 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness, a film whose tribute-paying extends well beyond its title.
As for Dan O’Bannon, he incorporated his own obsession with Lovecraft into the script for 1979’s Alien. While O’Bannon’s screenplay would be altered by many other hands on the way to the screen, the finished movie drips, at times literally, with Lovecraftian horror. That atmosphere was greatly enhanced by the monster designs of yet another Lovecraft fan, H.R. Giger, whose 1977 book of artwork, The Necronomicon, was named after a fictional tome much mentioned in the author’s short stories. O’Bannon, who died in 2009, once said that Alien was “certainly my most successful venture into Lovecraft turf.”
Direct adaptations of Lovecraft’s work have been less successful. The list of truly revered, directly inspired Lovecraft movies pretty much begins and ends with Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult classic Re-Animator and it is notable that, in the original tale, Lovecraft reined in his habit of creating the kind of epic fantasy realms which can give a cost-conscious studio executive heart palpitations. Indeed, there is much about Lovecraft’s purple, out-there writing style that would seem to resist full-scale adaptation. As Dan O’Bannon once noted: “It’s very, very difficult to achieve that tone in film. What you need is the cinematic equivalent of Lovecraft’s prose, that’s the problem, that’s very hard to achieve. So, it’s still there to be done, if anyone wants to stick his neck out.”
Next: “It’s going to be an epically scaled horror film and we haven’t seen anything like that since Aliens.”
One man who resolved very early in his career that he was prepared to risk his neck in Lovecraft-land was Guillermo del Toro. The director first began sketching out design ideas for a possible adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness around the time his debut film, the vampire movie Cronos, was released in 1993 and by 1998 he had completed a script with Matthew Robbins, who cowrote the director’s 1997 giant bug film Mimic.
In March 2000, it was announced that New Line Cinema’s president of production Michael De Luca had hired Del Toro to direct Blade 2, the second in the Wesley Snipes-starring vampire series. De Luca, too, was a Lovecraft fan and, in fact, had penned Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, whose Lovecraft hat-tipping extended well beyond its title. In June 2001, de Luca was appointed head of production at the Steven Spielberg-cofounded DreamWorks. The next spring, after Blade 2 earned a more-than-healthy $33M on its opening weekend, it was announced that the Mexican director was negotiating with De Luca to direct Mountains for Dreamworks.
Over the next five years del Toro’s star continued to rise as he made 2004’s Hellboy and then 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth but Mountains remained very much on the director’s mind. In an article published by the Irish Times in September 2004, Del Toro said that Spielberg “loved” the project and that DreamWorks was “extremely supportive” of the film. “I keep saying that will be my Titanic,” del Toro added. “Which, of course, could be taken two ways.” Despite Spielberg’s alleged enthusiasm, DreamWorks never greenlit the project. De Luca left the company in June 2004, and by 2006 the director was in talks with Warner Bros. about the movie.
By now, the director’s enthusiasm for the idea of adapting Mountains was well known to his growing fanbase. At the end of 2006, del Toro answered a series of queries posed by EW readers, one of whom asked whether he had yet found a studio for Mountains. “Not really” del Toro replied “although WB is still interested if I can do it for a certain number.” When another EW correspondent suggested del Toro was the “perfect” director to oversee Mountains, he responded “Somebody, quick! Send this Q&A session to the WB production dept NOW!!! Woo-hoo!!!”
Around the same time del Toro spoke with EW he gave an interview to London Time Out in which the filmmaker made clear that one of the major obstacles to getting Mountains into production was his own determination to stay true to Lovecraft’s tale. “I’m trying to do a trailer to show the studio what the movie could be,” said the director. “I finished the script three years ago, I already have my designs and I believe we are three quarters of the way there but the studio needs another push. So I’m going to make a trailer to show Warner Bros. what the movie could be. Because I believe that movie could be absolutely amazing. The studio is very nervous about the cost and it not having a love story or a happy ending, but it’s impossible to do either in the Lovecraft universe. Mountains of Madness is a very difficult novel to adapt, but if we ever made it, it will be a great movie to see. It will be an event.”
Ultimately, the attempt to get the project off the ground at Warners would also come to naught. Instead, del Toro busied himself with Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which would be released in July 2008. Earlier that year, the chances of del Toro making Mountains his next movie had seemingly diminished from slight to nonexistent with the news that he had been hired to direct The Hobbit. But the film’s production was repeatedly delayed, in large part thanks to the bankruptcy of MGM, and in the spring of 2010 del Toro announced that he had decided to leave the world of Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins et al.
In June 2010, while attending the Saturn awards, Del Toro made clear in an interview for the website Collider that, while he still had ambitions to make Mountains, he felt it unlikely a studio would put up the money to realize his vision. “I would love to be doing At the Mountains of Madness,” he said. “But still it’s very difficult for the studios to take the step and do an R-rated tentpole movie with a tough ending, no love story, set in period.”
Del Toro’s luck was about to change. Or so it seemed. Around the same time as the Saturn Awards, the director met with James Cameron, who had first encountered the filmmaker just prior to the release of Cronos and stayed in friendly touch over the years. Del Toro told Cameron that he wanted his next movie to be one that would feed his soul as a filmmaker. “What’s your favorite project?” Cameron asked. Del Toro replied the movie he most wanted to make was At the Mountains of Madness. “Let’s do it,” Cameron replied.
On July 28, the horror fan community achieved collective nerdgasm when it was reported, accurately, that Cameron and del Toro were in negotiations with Universal to make the movie. “It’s going to be an epically scaled horror film and we haven’t seen anything like that in a really long time,” Cameron told Wired in August. “I guess since Aliens.” With Universal providing seed money for the project, the director employed a team to design the movie’s monsters, of which there would be many. In addition to the Old Ones and the Shoggoths, Guillermo also intended to depict the dreaded Cthulhu. Meanwhile, the rumor mill had Tom Cruise, James McAvoy, and Chris Pine all in the running to star in the film, which del Toro and Cameron intended to shoot in 3-D.
In a video interview posted in February 2011, Cameron confirmed to MTV that he and Guillermo had approached Cruise about the project. “Tom does want to do the picture,” he said. “I don’t think we have a deal with him yet, but we’re hoping to get that closed soon. Guillermo is madly working on a new draft of the script. Hopefully we’ll be shooting by June or July.”
That hope was shattered when Universal ultimately declined to greenlight the movie, whose budget would have been in the region of $150m. On March 7 del Toro emailed the CritierionCast website declaring the project to be “dead.” In another missive, to a writer at The New Yorker, the director elaborated: “Madness has gone dark. The ‘R’ did us in.” On March 9, the director announced that his next film would be the monster movie Pacific Rim.
Despite this setback, del Toro remained determined that one day he would return to his dream project. Last July, in the course of Entertainment Weekly’s Visionaries panel at Comic-Con, the director said he hoped to still make the movie: “I’ve been trying to do it for so many years. We were so close, and the incarnation we were going to do is so great, I don’t want to give up. I hope I make it. It’s one of those movies that’s a Holy Grail for me.” Finally, this April, even del Toro seemed to lose faith when he realized that the plot of Prometheus might make any version of Mountains seem like old news to the public.
So is del Toro’s dream of adapting At the Mountains of Madness really dead? Maybe. Maybe not. Yes, the box office success of Prometheus means some cinemagoers might find a Mountains adaptation thematically familiar. But the film’s box office figures also demonstrate that there is an appetite for exactly the kind of Lovecraft-inspired, philosophically-inclined monster mayhem which del Toro has now spent two decades trying to bring to the big screen. And, as the sequels-filled movie release schedule proves week after week, a lot of studio executives seem to believe that familiarity breeds contentment among moviegoers.
Of course, when you’re talking about H.P Lovecraft, it’s always unwise to assume that anything is ever really dead. Just ask the doomed explorers in At the Mountains of Madness. Except, of course you can’t. So, instead, let’s let the last words go to Lovecraft who, in The Call of Cthulhu, wrote…
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
Have you seen Prometheus? Do you think del Toro should abandon his dream project? Or do you agree with the correspondent to the director’s website who yesterday argued that “if there’s room enough for two Snow White movies released within the same year there’s room for Prometheus and AtMoM to be released years apart. Given how important it is to Guillermo I hope we get to see it at some point.”?