The Horror, The Horror

Guillermo Del Toro might be the most well-rounded cineaste ever to make an art-schlock horror movie about giant mutant bugs (Mimic, which opened last Friday). Born in 1964 in Guadalajara, Mexico (where he still lives), Del Toro directed his first super-8 splatter-fest at age 6. As an adult, he apprenticed with gore maven/makeup artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist), and later started his own FX outfit expressly to create the putrid vampire mayhem of Cronos (1992), his debut feature. Elsewhere, Del Toro's undying love of cinema has extended to working as a TV director in Mexico, as a film-society projectionist, and as a movie critic on radio and in print. In typically visceral language, he describes his critical apex, a book about Alfred Hitchcock, as "540 pages long, a fucking brick."

In town on a publicity tour to support his $28 million (and quite good) mutant-bug movie, Del Toro exudes a kid's enthusiasm and a connoisseur's sense of horror-film history. (He considers Hitchcock's Frenzy "the putrid vomit of an old man who doesn't give a shit about anyone anymore.") As we sit down to chat, he shows me his pride and joy: a leather-bound "book of ideas" filled with gorgeously detailed drawings of various disgusting creatures, each marked with a color-coded symbol meaning "Has been used" (e.g. Mimic's killer cockroaches) or "Urgent: Must get out of my system." Suffice to say that this renaissance splatter-maker is hardly squandering his talent. Just as the film's bugs mimic man in order to survive, there's a sense in which Mimic impersonates a low-brow horror film in order to evolve Del Toro's career and the genre as a whole.

CITY PAGES: You use the word "putrid" a lot in your Interview Q&A with [Mimic star] Mira Sorvino. Great word. Elaborate on your definition of it.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: That was a common word in the '70s in Mexico: podrido [laughs]. It means rotten, almost to the point of being liquified. Or else it's a liquid that is so stagnant that it has transformed into an oozing mass of putridity. One of my favorite putrid moments in Mimic is when Susan [played by Sorvino] has to fist-fuck the lungs of the insect creature to extract its gland. I used to joke with Mira about how this was fist-fucking from hell [laughs].

CP: This sounds subversive.

GDT: I wanted to break that rule about the cleanliness of monsters in most movies. Like, in Godzilla movies, you never have to deal with Godzilla's shit. You never see crews of helicopters trying to airlift a Godzilla cake from the streets of Tokyo. I wanted my monsters to take a shit. It's liberating, this kind of bad taste. In my original script, I had a character walk into the creatures' nest in the subway; he looks up and sees all of them fucking on the ceiling like bats in a massive orgy. But we couldn't afford it.

CP: I like how, without any FX, you compare the yuppie heroes' unsuccessful attempts to breed with the insects' rampant propagation of their species.

GDT: There was even more of that in my original script, but I feared it was becoming preachy. Originally, we had discussions about how the insects were like the Armageddon locusts from the Bible. Now it's a little more subtle. Still, I would have loved to drive the point home with that shot of the screwing insects. You never see monsters fucking in movies.

CP: What other appeal did Mimic hold for you?

GDT: It's been so long since a movie scared me. I felt it was almost obscene that the studios were making these safe horror films with certain irritating patterns. Like, if a kid was in danger, he wouldn't be killed. Or, you can never kill a dog, or put the hero in real danger, or make the monsters completely stupid. In a strange, evil, impish way, I wanted to violate every single rule I could.

CP: It's weird to consider that the horror genre was so much more prevalent--and disturbing--in the '80s, at the very height of cultural tedium. What happened to the genre since then?

GDT: At some point, the line between powerfully violent scenes and gore was transgressed in so many silly ways that [horror films] ended up losing their effectiveness and their ingenuity. The gore made people nauseous and made censors pay attention. In other words, we gained the attention of the assholes and lost the attention of the audience. Suddenly the ratings board was all over the genre and the real artists just gave up.

CP: It's unusual to put the blame on the filmmakers themselves--rather than the studios or the censors.

GDT: This probably comes from my training on Mexican TV, with its strict standards and practices. They give you a huge book that says, "This is what you cannot do." You can't deal with drugs or kidnapping or smoking or drinking or cursing. And within those extremely confined boundaries, you find freedom. In Cronos, I started exploring the idea of minimalistic gore, which means that sometimes a single drop of blood or a square-inch of perforated skin counts more than overgratifying yourself with redundant gore. That splatter-movie age came and went--although, within that era, you had jewels like John Carpenter's The Thing.

CP: In Mimic, there was something about how the creatures' bloody innards moved and sounded that reminded me of The Thing, and no wonder; the makeup FX in both films were designed by Rob Bottin.

GDT: Carpenter is not one of my favorite filmmakers, but the first time I saw The Thing, my breath left me a couple of times and I didn't know where it had gone. The only problem is the ending, which is just totally unsatisfactory: You watch the two main characters struggle through the whole film, and then it just comes to this nihilistic non-ending.

CP: That reminds me: I wanted to ask about your degree of faith in the happy ending, because, by comparison to a lot of horror films, the end of Mimic is sort of transcendent.

GDT: I knew that if I put these two yuppies through the grinder of hell, they would be more alive at the end, they would love each other more, and they would have the family that they deserve. And they're not choosy anymore. That kind of human fragility moves me. People ask why I let them live, and I say, "Well, if you kill everybody, no one learns a lesson." To me, this is a very Catholic concept of redemption through pain.

CP: Speaking of which, your next project, Mephisto's Bridge, is being exec-produced by Martin Scorsese, for whom painful, Catholic redemption is also a running theme, right? Have you talked with him about that?

GDT: Well, Scorsese talks very fast. When we met for Mephisto, he said, "Why d'ya want me to do this movie?"--all in one syllable. I said, "Well, I think you'd be perfect because of the Catholic themes, and..." "Yes, but why? Why me? Why this movie?" I said, "Well, because Mephisto is the Book of Job meets It's a Wonderful Life." And he said, "Perfect. Let's do it." I think both of us feel that It's a Wonderful Life already is the Book of Job: You have a man who's put through a test and who asks God, "Show me the way." And at the end of it all, he learns a lesson. That's what I mean about a satisfactory ending.

CP: That kind of pure faith is unfashionable these days, especially in horror.

GDT: You have to go for the ending that moves you. I don't want to be one of those ironic directors, smoking a cigarette in a coffee shop and talking about how great I am, how I'm gonna end It's a Wonderful Life with George Bailey coming off the bridge saying, "I'm alive," and then he gets killed by a sudden bolt of lightning--The End. Actually, now that I think about it, that's not a bad ending.

Mimic is playing at area theaters.

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