On Monday, we reported on the sad news that Guillermo del Toro’s passion project, a big budget, R-rated adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, was cancelled. Universal decided that an R-rated movie with a budget of $150 million and P&A costs that could boost the movie’s cost to $300 million at minimum was too risky a proposition, even for a popular director like Del Toro. His next project will now be Pacific Rim, a generic-sounding PG-13 thriller about alien monsters invading the world and the fight against them. Also in there somewhere will be his CGI Pinocchio with Jim Henson Studios. Now, I’m always a fan of a good alien invasion movie, especially with a talent like Del Toro at the helm. However, in this case, it’s a result of being robbed of what should have been the keystone film of Del Toro’s career.
There’s a lot of anger over this issue. I’ve got a fair amount myself. People are blaming Universal for not having the balls to release the movie. Some say it’s the studio system in general, which better raises up the familiar and easily bankable. There’s been a lot of arguing over the matter for sure. A minor Twitter war broke out between /Film’s Peter Sciretta and Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny, and neither of them came across terribly well. So what’s the problem?
It’s both. And a lot more.
It’s fair to say that Universal pulled the plug on Mountains of Madness out of fear. Completely understandable fear. Do not forget that, at the end of the day, film studios exist to make money. The bottom line is what matters. They might make a lot of grandstanding about storytelling and making the best possible movies, but that doesn’t change the fact that Big Momma’s House has had two sequels now, and the Saw movies went on for a terrible, terrible decade. If a studio is going to toss down up to half a billion dollars for a high-budget picture, they’re going to want as safe an investment as possible. Giant, expensive movies that tank destroy studios. Just ask Michael Cimino. Even if you’ve got a good movie, there’s no telling what kind of audience it will have, and that just adds further doubt.
That said, every film company is willing to take a chance on a good project, despite insurmountable evidence that the movie may not play well to the housewives in the Midwest. I’m a very vocal opponent of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but goddamnit, Universal took a movie that very few people would be legitimately interested in and gave it as good a shot as they could. You might make the argument that they did too many early sneak peeks, cutting a lot of big fans of the property out of the bottom line. I know, since I was one of those. I saw the movie at a free screening back in July, a month before it opened, and it was one of a dozen in that theater that month. My screening was packed, so I have to assume the others were too. That’s hundreds of tickets going unsold from interested people that would have paid for the movie without so many free early screenings. The point I’m making here is that you can’t blame Universal for being afraid to take an even bigger risk after how badly their last major risk went.
The problem as I see it is a combination of the aforementioned studio fear of losing money, which is acceptable, and a pervading mistreatment of the horror genre, which is unforgivable. Recently, studios have balked at the idea of releasing R-rated horror movies, with the notable exception of the Saw series. In the case of Saw, though, that series hit the perfect combination of cheap thrills, cheap filmmaking, and domination of Halloween to secure financial stability. Others aren’t so lucky. As a result, we get a lot of toothless, PG-13 horror that offers some jump scares and some light stabbings, only to be treated to the “Unrated!” editions on Blu-ray and DVD that have ten seconds of extra gore that qualifies them as “unrated” because the MPAA never actually rated it, but that’s a rant for another time. Even the modern returns of Messers. Freddy Kreuger and Jason Voorhees have been treated coolly, with New Line Cinemas seemingly making no effort on follow-up films.
All of this leads up to At the Mountains of Madness. In a short statement to Entertainment Weekly, Del Toro again confirmed the project was dead, specifically saying, “Mountains is dead. The ‘R’ did us in.” If this were a James Cameron adventure, I wouldn’t be writing this editorial. We’d be scouring the earth for details on whatever mystery project the studio behind Cameron is dunking half a billion into. If James Cameron can profit off a nearly three-hour long movie about a famous ship sinking or a high-concept sci-fi remake of Dances with Wolves, and make a seriously huge profit at that, it’s certainly possible to sell an R-rated horror film from one of the most celebrated horror writers of all time.
But today, we get another generic alien invasion movie. Because that’s what we deserve.