Guillermo del Toro’s films create fully-realized worlds of fantasy and terror. The director’s otherworldly vision transcends any ready definitions of “arthouse” and “blockbuster”: His filmography forms a coherent line, from the smaller-scale genre explorations like Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone to the big-budget Hellboy curios, from the Academy-sanctified Pan’s Labyrinth to the giant-monster-bashing Pacific Rim.
Del Toro is both a student of horror cinema and one of its chief practitioners. So it’s a bit shocking that it’s taken this long for someone to transform one of his cinematic visions into a real-life haunted-house experience. But for this year’s Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood, Del Toro’s upcoming film Crimson Peak has been transformed into a macabre maze, exuding the director’s trademark attention to detail and his fierce desire to freak you out.
“I’ve been working with Universal for the last two or three years, thinking about mazes we could do,” says del Toro. “We finally came to the idea of Crimson Peak. In the movie, the main character is kind of trapped in the house, and the house becomes basically a maze.”
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John Murdy, the creative director of Halloween Horror Nights, has worked closely in the past with the filmmakers and musicians whose work has gotten the Universal maze treatment. But working with del Toro led to a new level in collaboration. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anybody who’s as personally involved as Guillermo,” says Murdy. Del Toro offered the team behind the Crimson Peak maze unlimited access to the production’s photo archives and blueprints. Murdy — who has been working on the Crimson Peak maze throughout the film’s production — says that his team ultimately looked at 38,000 pictures from the film’s set. They worked closely with the film’s team on recreating specific locations, items, and del Toro’s micro-detailed wallpaper — with a moth motif that becomes a central factor of the movie.
Crimson Peak largely takes place inside of Allerdale Hall, the splendid Gothic-looking mansion infested with unfathomable terrors. The film’s set was enormous, says del Toro. “We built that house in the largest stage in North America, all three stories. We made the maze to end all mazes, in a way!”
“You just don’t do that these days in moviemaking,” says Murdy. “But I appreciate that, because I grew up in an era before computer animation, and I love great production design. His design is so beautiful, and creepy. I call it High Horror.”
Still, translating a large movie set into a live theatrical set with heavy foot traffic offered some intriguing challenges for the team behind the maze. At one point in the maze, moths actually seem to be flying on top of you — an effect created with nothing more than a dark room, some actors covered in black attire, and a couple pheasant feathers. “There’s one actor in this scene whose entire job is to jiggle a doorknob,” says Murdy, as we walk down a particularly scary corridor. “Guillermo said, ‘There’s a shot in the movie where a ghost is trying to get through the door. Get a mechanism to do that!’ But it’s live theater, how we do things. You can’t just do it like a ride, where you can always expect there’s somebody in the same spot every ‘x’ amount of time.”
Halloween Horror Nights opens Friday, a month before Crimson Peak arrives in theaters. So the maze is intended as, essentially, a living trailer for the film. It will co-exist alongside an Alien vs. Predator maze and an Insidious maze. Once again, Universal Studios will feature a Walking Dead maze — the biggest one yet. And, in something of a departure for the Horror Nights experience, they’re also creating a maze for This is the End. “It’s something we’ve never done before, try to balance horror and comedy,” says Murdy.
I ask Murdy, half-joking, if he has an animatronic dead Michael Cera.
“Yes, I do, actually!” he says. “He’s coming in tomorrow morning. He’s being fabricated off-site right now.”
Del Toro still hasn’t seen the finished maze when I talk to him, but he has clearly enjoyed the experience of getting Crimson Peak transformed into a live-theater terror show. I ask him if he would like to see any of his other movies become a Universal Studios maze.
“The scariest one would be the production of Mimic,” he deadpans. “I lived through that one.”