Guillermo del Toro on the set of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"… (Carolyn Johns / Miramax…)
Like one of the mysterious creatures that populate his fantastical films, Guillermo del Toro possesses a unique ability to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
On Sunday, the filmmaker will premiere the new horror film he co-wrote and produced, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," two months before its Aug. 26 theatrical opening as part of the closing night festivities for the Los Angeles Film Festival, which tapped Del Toro as this year's guest director.
But the update of the 1973 telefilm that he calls "the scariest movie I saw as a kid," marks the first time in three years that a project with Del Toro's beautifully macabre aesthetic has appeared on the big screen.
Since he directed "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" — the sequel to his 2004 comic-book adaptation about a kitten-loving horned demon who reluctantly battles the forces of darkness –- Del Toro has labored over two projects: a two-part version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and a big-budget R-rated version of H.P. Lovecraft's outré tale "At the Mountains of Madness." Creative differences with Tolkien guru Peter Jackson led to his departure from the former; concerns over escalating costs and the restrictive rating sank the latter.
Yet he has managed to sign on to produce, or write, or possibly direct, if he can, a slew of upcoming films, including new versions of "Pinocchio," "Frankenstein" and Roald Dahl's "The Witches." Then there's "Pacific Rim," the alien invasion thriller he's readying to go before cameras in October, which officially will mark his return to the director's chair.
Del Toro insists, though, that the pileup isn't as massive as it seems.
"It's a pileup created almost exclusively by scoops on the Internet on movies that have no screenplay, no stars, no start dates," he said late last week, speaking by phone from Toronto. "Sadly, my promiscuity is mostly imaginary."
Imagination is the hallmark of Del Toro's distinctive filmography, a body of work perhaps best represented by 2006's Oscar-winning Spanish-language fable, "Pan's Labyrinth." The dark period drama recounts the story of a precocious young girl who encounters mystical beings from another realm and is forever changed by her interactions with fauns, fairies and a pale, voracious ogre with eyes in the palms of his hands.
"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is both the thematic antecedent and successor to that film. Bailee Madison ("Just Go With It") stars as Sally Hirst, a precocious 10-year-old who, after being sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in a lavish Rhode Island estate they're restoring, begins hearing voices whispering to her from the basement.
Without giving too much away, it's safe to say that she might, well, encounter some mystical beings from another realm and be forever changed by her interaction with them.
Del Toro wrote the script for the update in 1997 with Matthew Robbins, and he's the first to acknowledge the similarities between his earlier acclaimed fairy tale and this latest effort. It was for that reason that he opted to produce: "The instincts I have for the material would be the same instincts I had for 'Pan's.' I tried to avoid that."
Instead, he hired first-time feature filmmaker Troy Nixey, who had previously made a short film called "Latchkey's Lament" about a pair of house keys abducted by a hulking, mechanized villain. "I really fell in love with that short," Del Toro said. "I thought it was really inventive and quite unique and full of whimsy, all the stuff that I thought would be ideal for this movie."
"I think because we do have similar sensibilities and inspirations," said Nixey, 39. "This does sort of feel like a Guillermo movie, but that's just because I like the same stuff that he does. I love moving cameras, I'm very, very particular about color palette, which he is as well."
"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" was shot in and around Melbourne, Australia, in the summer of 2009, almost entirely on the elaborately constructed house set. The decaying residence undergoing restoration functions like a character in the film, much in the same way as did the haunted mansion in another Del Toro-produced movie, 2007's "The Orphanage."
Del Toro points out that those two films share another common link — strong female protagonists who propel the stories forward.
"I'm always interested in writing strong parts for female roles or producing them," he said. "I think that ultimately in this genre there are only two ways to go. You can write a really great character for the actor or you can just do the victim part. I think that the victim movies, the movies that play with the women as victims, are very, very uninteresting. Not even as a teenage horror fan was I interested in those movies."