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Guillermo del Toro’s imagination is working overtime

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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“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.”

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Critics, including David Ansen, formerly of Newsweek and now the L.A. Film Festival’s artistic director, have praised the level of sophistication with which Del Toro tackles genre material, and that quality is what made him the right choice to serve as guest director, Ansen said.

“He’s one of the most singular voices out there — a Guillermo del Toro movie is unmistakable and very personal whether it’s ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ or ‘Hellboy,’ they’re equally personal,” Ansen said. “He covers all the genres and we’re trying to build a festival that appeals to lots of different movie tastes, that goes from high to low but at a high level of quality and he sort of exemplifies that kind of filmmaking.”

Del Toro said he was thrilled to have the opportunity through his role at the festival to present a film that directly inspired his approach, 1996’s “L’Arcano Incantatore” (“The Arcane Enchanter”). He said the Italian movie, which will screen Sunday afternoon at REDCAT, not only influenced his 2001 ghost story “The Devil’s Backbone,” it also helped Del Toro best Quentin Tarantino in a battle of obscure cinema one-upmanship.

“We were like dueling banjos,” Del Toro said. “I said, ‘I bet you I can name a movie you haven’t seen.’ He went, ‘Shoot.’ This is the movie I trumped him with. I think that if Quentin hasn’t seen it, then 99% of cinema lovers have not seen it because Quentin is like a machine. This is one of my favorite unknown movies ever. This is a really beautiful, incredibly eerie, spiritual fantastic horror movie.”

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Unveiling “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” too, is a point of pride. The movie’s opening, which is being handled by independent studio FilmDistrict, has been delayed since last year as it was caught up in Disney’s sale of Miramax Films, which originally controlled the picture.

Now that it’s coming out, Del Toro is eager to maintain his sense of momentum. Even though “Pacific Rim” won’t hit theaters until 2013, production is ramping up quickly, and that, he says, is a welcome change.

“I haven’t shot a movie in three years, so I’m ready,” he said. “This is pure, pure fun.”

gina.mcintyre@latimes.com


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