TORONTO—Alfred Hitchcock cut terror with wit; David Cronenberg intellectualizes fright; and Guillermo del Toro treats monsters like family. The odd thing about filmmakers who specialize in torturing audiences is that they tend to be fairly warm people, since their darker tendencies are dedicated elsewhere.
That’s certainly true of del Toro, the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and The Devil’s Backbone. When he speaks with the Georgia Straight about his latest production, Mama (opening Friday [January 18]), the jovial conversation spills out for an hour, covering everything from Italian horror soundtracks to breaking chairs with hefty girth.
It’s an everything-at-once chat, which is appropriate for the restless filmmaker who produced Mama while directing his upcoming giant-robot blockbuster, Pacific Rim, writing a script for Disney’s The Haunted Mansion, and developing a few TV shows.
“When you hear J. J. Abrams has 10 projects, it’s really [production company] Bad Robot. When you hear I have 10 projects, it’s me,” del Toro says with a laugh. “I need to build an infrastructure around myself, but it’s worth it to produce for first-time directors.”
Mama—a tale of two girls who attempt to return to a suburban existence only to be followed by the evil spirit that raised them in a forest—is covered in del Toro’s fingerprints but was written and directed by first-time Spanish filmmaker Andrés Muschietti. Del Toro discovered Muschietti’s original short version of “Mama” years ago and decided to guide the budding filmmaker into Hollywood features.
“I watch probably 50 to 60 shorts a year,” del Toro says. “Rarely, I find one and think: ‘Wow, there’s a voice there. It’s well produced; it’s well thought out; and it’s freaky.’ That’s ‘Mama’. It’s one in a hundred, and if I respond like that, I want to help.”
The appeal of the project is clear for anyone familiar with del Toro’s fractured-family horror stories and lingering obsessions. “There are primal emotions to motherhood and family that I respond to,” he explains. “Family is the source of all horror and the source of all blessings. The most frightening thing about a mother is the suffocating instinct and, ultimately, the possessiveness, which is Mama.”
Beyond such heady themes, del Toro just loves a good movie monster, and Mama delivers that in a twisted, twitching, terrifying spectre with a face from Amedeo Modigliani and a wardrobe from Edward Gorey. Played by the gangly Javier Botet, Mama comfortably slides into del Toro’s canon of memorable monsters, and the filmmaker’s face lights up when discussing that creation. “[Botet] can bend his arm both ways in the same fucking shot,” he reveals with glee. “We had technicians pulling him with strings like a puppet while he worked to create these strange movements. Someone said to me, ‘The only effect I didn’t buy was Mama; it was too CG.’ Well, that’s a fucking guy.”
Although detractors might complain that Mama feels too similar to del Toro’s previous work, that’s actually something the filmmaker covets in any project with his name in the credits. “By the time I’m done, I will have made one movie, and it’s all of my movies put together,” he claims. “People say, ‘I like your Spanish movies more than your American movies because they aren’t as personal.’ I say, ‘You’re wrong.’ You can like one more than the other, but they are really part of the same movie.”
It’s an ongoing project that everyone with a taste for foam-rubber magic and the macabre has come to love. The latest chapter is here, and del Toro’s ludicrously busy schedule ensures the next won’t be far behind, if only because the insatiable horror addict continues to feel inspired by the few contemporary genre productions that don’t bear his name.
“I was really envious of Let the Right One In,” he admits at the end of our chat. “I called the director to give him a poster quote and said, ‘Motherfucker, I hate you.’ I would kill to make that movie.”