Saturday, August 7, 2010

Haunting the Mansion: Burton & Del Toro

In the course of my internet travels recently, I ran into an article discussing the announced Disney Haunted Mansion project.  In the discussion, the author made it clear that most fans felt Tim Burton would have been the preferred director for the film; del Toro was an acceptable second. I passionately disagree.

I guess the essential difference lies in what one expects out of a film and what one expects from the Haunted Mansion. The mansion and I have a long history – having the ride car get stopped in front of the giant spiders on my first childhood ride made what could be called an impression. As an adult, it's one of the "must do" attractions that never loses its chill and its wonder. For me, the mansion is a place of juxtapositions.  It blurs the lines between the natural and supernatural; it traipses without hesitation from disturbing to whimsical, and it blends the truly disturbing with the charming at every turn.  It is a surreal ride, a disturbing experience, and a fun attraction, all while maintaining a personal connection to the viewer and keeping the promise of chilling atmosphere and occasional moments of wonder.

Translating that to the movie screen is no small task.  Of course, a slavish adaptation of any of the various haunted mansions in parks around the world would be an utter failure.  The Mansion (whichever one may be under discussion) is an attraction, not a movie.  Furthermore, the “stories” of the attractions in California and Florida are more than a little up for speculation.  I think the key to creating a financially successful Haunted Mansion franchise is the same as the uncovered secret that makes the Pirates of the Caribbean films a success – capture the spirit, not the letter of the attraction.

To me, del Toro is a far better choice for doing just that.  In my opinion, Burton’s films tend to careen between charming and garish with little in between. When he finds the heart of a film – Edward Scissorhands or Nightmare Before Christmas – he can create a charming, almost childlike cinematic gem.  When he focuses on his signature bizarre elements – Sleepy Hollow or Alice in Wonderland – he creates a visually stunning film that fails to connect to the audience on a level deeper than its “coolness” factor.  To me, Burton’s imagery is rooted deeply in the visual tradition of the German expressionists. And while The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Bride of Frankenstein remain classics, Burton’s interpretations of expressionism serve to emphasize the almost cartoonish un-reality of his worlds.  He draws a clear line between "here" and "there," and although his fantastic worlds certainly commentate on reality, they are unquestionably not as real and nuanced as our own.

Guillermo del Toro is, without question, a less established director.  His vision is less familiar to most audiences, and, certainly, he too has made films that fail to find an emotional center or connection with his audience.  Yet his films, perhaps because of his cultural heritage, display a mastery of juxtaposition – a refusal to see the world of the inexplicable and fantastic as discrete from mundane reality or to acknowledge one as more “real” than the other – that seems perfect for interpreting the spirit of the mansion.  Just as Burton seems to echo the German expressionists of the early cinematic world, del Toro’s style seems much of the same piece as the literary magical realism of Central America.  Like Borges or Marquez, del Toro has a sense that the fantastical has a reality of its own, and its hyper-real beauty and horror is embedded in our world.  Take, for example, Pan’s Labyrinth; its two worlds are equally viable and nuanced as well as deeply interconnected. Rather than merely bizarre, cartoonish, or childishly innocent, del Toro's fantasy world embraces those elements and reaches beyond them to create a world as complex as "reality," filled with laughter and fear genuine enough to win his audience's credibility and emotional investment. 

I guess for me, the Haunted Mansion is a place of atmosphere and heightened reality.  It is a crossroads where different worlds – beautiful, terrifying, dead, living, whimsical, and horrific all intersect.  To put the spirit of that place on screen, with its genuinely chilling moments and its charming whimsy, and to let us, as the audience, walk out the door with both a smile and a suppressed chill at the thought that a ghost might follow us home…I think we need someone who can weave a world that is more than visually stunning.  We need someone who can make the magic a new reality, not an expression of an opinion or moral.  Here’s hoping del Toro can live up to that.                                  

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