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Second Opinion: Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageGuillermo Del Toro is a geeky mad genius. 

He’s one of those young, passionate directors that can pique your interest in a project just by having his name attached to it.  Perhaps this explains why he’s been associated with so many geek projects coming out in the next 5 years: Hellboy II: The Golden Army, 3993, two films based on the The Hobbit, The Coffin, Deadman, The Champions, oh and he’s expressed interest in directing an adaptation of Frankenstein.  Does the man never tire?  All this, and there’s also At the Mountains of Madness, a film that should come out sometime around the two Hobbit films he’s going to direct.  If the script for Mountains (written by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins) gets faithfully translated to the screen, moviegoers will be served up a haunting, tragic tale of men encountering a force beyond their comprehension, and it will come with a big side-helping of déjà vu.

Before I go any further, I suppose I should give you a spoiler alert as I’m going to be talking about specific elements in Mountains.  But then again, that seems kind of pointless, considering this is an adaptation of a novella of the same name written by H. P. Lovecraft in 1931.  Given that the man has an entire genre of horror fiction named after him, you might already be familiar with this story.  If you are a fan of Lovecraft, you’ll be happy to know that even though this isn’t an entirely faithful adaptation, with Del Toro at the helm that psychological, Lovecraftian terror should make it onto the screen well intact.

True to the original story in setting, the majority of the movie takes place in 1930.  For much the same reason that Peter Jackson chose to preserve the original setting for his remake of King Kong, I imagine Del Toro is making damn sure this movie will be true to the setting Lovecraft established.  Why?  Because we’re enlightened now.  We’ve mapped the planet; we’ve made huge leaps in science.  So if I told you the major development in this movie is that while on an expedition to explore Antarctica a team of scientists discovers a mountain range that dwarfs the Himalayas and a city built by an ancient alien civilization on the other side, you’d immediately dismiss this as nothing more than a flight of fancy.  We all know Antarctica is just a crap load of ice and some penguins.  Yep, you’d dismiss it just as you might dismiss the idea of a giant ape being discovered on an uncharted tropical island where dinosaurs still live and roam.  But by taking us back to a point in history when there were still blank areas on the map and a fear of the unknown, by putting us in that mindset we might, if only for a couple hours, find the tale of Mountains truly wondrous and horrifying.  But I think cinephiles are also going to find it very familiar, and that might not bode well for this film.

The reason for that is due to a movie released back in 1982, a low-budget thriller directed by John Carpenter called The Thing that feels very similar to this adaptation of Mountains.  How similar?  Both are set in Antarctica, and both follow the discovery of alien artifacts by research teams.  In both films malevolent alien life forms awaken and infiltrate the teams via their ability to change shape and mimic any other living organism.  The aliens attempt to escape the harsh, isolated environs to spread throughout the rest of the planet, and it is up to the remaining team members to stop the aliens by any means necessary.  Both end on a rather despondent note, with a bleak outlook for humanity.  Now, you might say that 1982 is far enough in the past that most in the audience won’t realize all these parallels, but for the movie aficionados who remember The Thing and might consider it a cult classic (namely the kinds of people that are reading this review); these similarities will be painfully obvious.  They might consider it (at best) some kind of remake or homage to The Thing, and (at worst) a rip-off.  But here is where history gets interesting.

The Thing is ostensibly a remake of The Thing from Another World, released back in 1951.  But both of these films are adaptations of the novella Who Goes There? written by John W. Campbell, Jr. way back in 1938, with Carpenter’s thriller the more faithful of the two.  Evidently aliens and Antarctica were hot topics in the 30’s, and this is a case of two men independently penning stories that happen to be similar.  Regardless, as a film The Thing came first and fair or not Mountains will be measured against it.  To take nothing away from Del Toro’s writing or directing ability, but I think that with such a comparison Mountains will come up short.     

A big part of the reason for this is that not only do most of the big thrill-inducing developments evoke those in The Thing, and hence feel very familiar, but you see them coming anyway.  What I mean by that is The Thing is such a successful thriller because you have no idea what’s going on.  The paranoia and suspicion felt by MacReady, Childs, and the other characters leaps off the screen to infect you, the viewer.  The first time you watch this movie you don’t know who is normal and who might be infected by the alien any more than they do.  It’s all masterfully executed, and may be best exemplified by the classic “blood test” scene:

Here’s the thing about Mountains, similarity to Carpenter’s film aside, you know who is normal and who the alien incognito is for pretty much the entire movie.  As the script is written you see the alien in its native form attack, consume, and then replicate the appearance of its victim, so anytime that character reappears in the film, you automatically know it’s the alien and bad things are about to happen.  There’s even a scene that practically recreates the famous “blood test” from The Thing … but with salt (instead of heat), which is another weak point of the script.  It’s not as head-scratching a development as that in Signs where you learn that the invading aliens’ biggest weakness is water, but it still had me wondering why an advanced alien species would choose to come to a planet where a compound that is lethal to them is as abundant as salt is here on Earth.

OK.  Time out.  Let’s address something.  Those of you reading this who have previously read Lovecraft’s novella are probably asking yourselves, “WTF?  Aliens that mimic human team members? Weakness to salt?  A rip-off of The Thing?  Are you sure we’re talking about the same story here?”

Image

A master of horror: H.P. Lovecraft, 1890-1937

Indeed we are, but you have to remember this is Lovecraft’s story as it exists after having passed through the filter of Del Toro’s consciousness.  The essence of the story remains intact – a recounting of a failed Antarctic expedition as a cautionary tale to ward off future exploration, but key changes and additions have been made.  One of the more prominent is the mode of storytelling.

Lovecraft wrote his novella as a first-person narrative, and while it might be a stretch to say it is an epistolary work in the tradition of Dracula, it is written in the form of a letter by the protagonist Professor Dyer to colleagues in the scientific field planning an expedition subsequent to his own.  As Dyer recalls, the expedition was highly publicized and regular updates on progress/developments were sent to the general public via radio transmissions, albeit many details were withheld as events took a turn for the macabre. Additionally it is clear that the expedition returned to port and civilization.  Indeed Dyer is writing his letter from the relative safety and comfort of his home.

In contrast, in Del Toro’s adaptation these transmissions to the outside world do not occur. Furthermore, by a set of circumstances I’ll leave unspoiled the expedition has been considered “lost at sea” for ten years.  The movie opens with a badly damaged derelict drifting into port in Australia, soon identified as the Arkham, which along with its sister ship the Miskatonic comprised the expedition – both believed sunk and their crew presumed dead.  Investigation of the vessel’s interior reveals a lone survivor – Dyer, who tells the story of the failed expedition to a Captain Starkweather who, for unspecified reasons, intends to pilot a ship to Antarctica. 

Why am I focusing so much on this?  Because this dramatic opening is certainly more of an attention-grabber than the rather mundane writing of a letter, and while the latter works exceptionally well for a literary work, the former is certainly more appropriate for translation to film. The opening sets the tone and pace of the rest of the story.  Lovecraft sets a snail’s pace that slowly builds throughout a story that has a glaring paucity of action.  He builds suspense largely through use of language, such as the following:

“It was as if these stark, nightmare spires marked the pylons of a frightful gateway into forbidden spheres of dream, and complex gulfs of remote time, space, and ultra-dimensionality. I could not help feeling that they were evil things – mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss.”

“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.”

 

Gawd, it gives me chills just reading it, and I’m a jaded, desensitized member of Generation Y.  What do you think that shit would have done to a reader circa 1936?  Of course, Del Toro has the task of taking Lovecraft’s language and capturing it on film, all while preserving his own vision, as well as appeasing Hollywood producers who no doubt expect financial success.  Make no mistake, this is a Guillermo Del Toro movie, which means the pace will be more frenetic, the action more abundant, but the tone?  Definitely still chill-inducing.  

In a recent interview Del Toro commented, "I have a sort of a fetish for insects, clockwork, monsters, dark places, and unborn things."  Those familiar with his body of work know these elements make frequent appearances in his films.  Each of them gets loving attention to varying degrees by Del Toro in his script for Mountains, but I’d like to focus on another trademark of his that he didn’t mention.

In Hellboy, aside from the obvious fact that the hero is a demon from Hell, there’s not much in the way of references to God or Christ throughout, but at the climax of the movie, what is it that stimulates Hellboy to “remember who he is”? 

A rosary, which sears the mark of a cross into his hand.

This is just one example of the inclusion of Christian themes and elements by Del Toro.  Considering Mountains, I was struck by the dichotomy of these two artists.   I don’t know much about Lovecraft’s personal beliefs, but as far as this story is concerned he seemed to keep it grounded in science and had little interest in including overt religious themes in his work.  That absence of religion is in stark relief to Del Toro’s sprinkling of faith throughout the script, including scientists on the expedition repeatedly making references and invocations to God and Christ and one of them even carrying a Bible with him.  Yet Del Toro seems to include all this to set up the big reveal at the end and give it more heft and impact.  Near the end a group of scientists are exploring the alien city, and they encounter a room with a huge mound of petrified skeletal remains, a dead menagerie of animals from all phyla and orders, extinct dinosaurs co-mingled with present day mammals.  One character is convinced it is a monument made by the aliens, a sort of record of their creations.  Later, after this character is consumed by one of the malevolent extraterrestrials, it mimics his appearance and appears to a fellow team member, taunting and then devouring him:

 LAKE (CONT’D)

Lake is here.  With us.  He wants you to know that it was them – The Old Ones, who brought life to this planet, not your God!

The Lake-thing shimmers and glides up to Atwood.

 ATWOOD (CONT’D)

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

 LAKE

They created life many times, on many worlds! First, out of hunger.  Then, out of boredom they created men! Yes!  They made you: a house pet!  And gave you doubts and fears and hopes and faith.  It made you more entertaining to watch- like a puppy chasing its tail.

Tentacles envelop Atwood in a smothering embrace.

 LAKE (CONT’D)

Go on, little man.  Finish your prayer.  You know that no one is listening.

This plot development is nothing new.  It’s been explored before by others, but it serves the story and fits with themes of cosmic horror that Lovecraft developed and explored- that mankind’s perceived place in the universe is woefully misguided, that life is incomprehensible and that there are forces at work far greater than us of which we are not aware, and they are not all benevolent.  Del Toro tries to add to the terror by playing further upon Christian beliefs and revealing that the malevolent aliens (known to readers of the novella as shoggoths) credit themselves for man’s inspiration of the Devil, going so far as to refer to themselves as Legion.  In fact Del Toro ends his script with a Bible verse that references the coming of the Anti-Christ, superimposed as Captain Starkweather fails to heed Dyer’s warning, ventures to Antarctica, and comes face-to-face with the denizens of the mountains of madness:

“And at the end of days will come a man that walks like a man, looks like a man, but is not a man.”

Revelations 5:19

For the true adherent of Lovecraft’s fiction, this movie may not be exactly what they want, but it seems the best they can expect.  Indeed I might go so far as to say that Del Toro’s adaptation achieves much the same as Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s Two Towers, namely that the film will be better than the book.  And while I stand by my judgment that in comparison to The Thing, Mountains could be seen as inferior, it still promises to be a highly entertaining, monster-filled tribute to one of horror’s almost forgotten authors by one of today’s most passionate directors.  Definitely something to go mad over.

Author: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

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