The Horror Advocate makes cases for the under-appreciated cinematic treasures that lurk just beneath your bed. If your horror film is publicly derided, undeservedly ridiculed or generally forgotten, you may find yourself in need of… The Horror Advocate.
This week, Guillermo del Toro releases another passion project of his with the Gothic romance, Crimson Peak. That film, which promises Victorian-clad Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain fighting for love and against their pasts in one of the most gorgeous haunted houses ever, looks willing and able to substantiate this square premise. Looking back on a lot of del Toro’s work, his ability to turn his boyish sensibilities into something adult and smart has become a through line. He presents his subjects and details sincerely and doesn’t wink at the onscreen happenings. In other hands, the material could come off as cheese or as gawkish immaturity, but in del Toro’s, it all shines and draws us in.
By his own admission, Mimic, as it was released and even as it stands with a new director’s cut, is not the film del Toro wanted to make. Between the demanding nature of producer, Bob Weinstein, and the on-set tension among the film’s leads, it’s a miracle Mimic was made at all. Lo and behold that the film doesn’t just exist, it almost sings.
In turn, del Toro makes heroes out of entomologists, discusses the intricacies of insect protocol and throws goop, guts and blood at every inch of the frame. Through the lenses with which Mimic was marketed and released, it’s no wonder that the film didn’t catch on with mainstream audiences that thought they were seeing a slick, Hollywood horror-thriller. It’s not that it isn’t that to a certain degree, it’s that it is so much more and has a very human heart and a very dark heart.
Following the outbreak of a cockroach-borne disease that has almost killed all children, Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) discovers a way to harness nature to combat itself and eradicate the disease. The plan, which involves the creation of a new species of insect whose high metabolism causes it to secrete a toxin deadly to roaches but grow and evolve at an exponential rate, is thought to have worked but, in true nature-run-amok fashion, only causes bigger problems.
This is a story about the hubris of humanity; what happens when science tries to take control of nature. We’ve seen this template hundreds of times over with films ranging from Jurassic Park to The Fly. Looking purely at the film’s goals, it doesn’t do much different with the genre which, ultimately, is what keeps it grounded from being a transcendent moment in horror. Instead, Mimic focuses on the people thrust together in this situation, attempting against all odds to destroy the abominations they’ve created. The ways that the public exalts the initial cure of the disease, juxtaposed against the private victory when humanity is really saved in the end brings full circle that humility is key to existence.
Where del Toro and the producers misfire with the plot or story, they succeed in the development of likable, human characters. The cast which includes Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Charles S. Dutton, Josh Brolin, Giancarlo Giannini and Doug Jones (and a Norman Reedus appearance as a kooky garbage collector!) more than do their jobs against what can easily be considered some cliched dialogue and circumstance. It isn’t easy to create characters we want to see survive and the film isn’t afraid to do away with anyone and everyone.
And doing away with characters is something del Toro does extremely well.
The production design for his films has a fabled history and this, as his first English-language feature debut, sets the bar for his wet, filthy, rich worlds. The monster designs are some of the creepiest and most ingenious seen in years. The practical effects let us buy that these things could have come from a natural world and they are both bumbling and menacing enough to make us really believe in the danger. The creatures’ “mimicking” techniques play less of a part than the title implies, but the reveals of how this is done result in some of the best shocks in the history of the genre.
Guillermo del Toro’s populist sensibility isn’t populist in the traditional sense. His touch is mistaken for something easily digestible when his style is much more fetishistic with its detail and intent. These “mainstream” films of his paint in such broad strokes that it’s easy to mistake them for being simple. Mimic is pure childhood imagination smashed against an adult understanding of the world.