1997 was an unusually busy year for that venerable staple of Hollywood, the creature feature. The Relic saw a Chicago museum terrorised by a rhino-like man-eating monster. Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers offered up an entire planet full of giant insects and ingenious brain bugs.
And then there was Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, which saw its own breed of terror stalk the sewers of Manhattan. The sophomore feature from Mexican director, and his first movie for a Hollywood studio, Mimic was something of a trial by fire. Subjected to various changes once del Toro came aboard – Mimic was initally planned as a half-hour segment in a three-part horror anthology – the film constantly mutated through its production, largely due to the interference of studio bosses.
I was a fervent admirer of del Toro’s debut, Cronos, a dark vampire fantasy with a surprisingly warm heart, and I remember rushing to my local cinema to watch Mimic back in 1997. The film that unfolded in the darkness was both a thrill ride and a vague disappointment. There were hallmarks of del Toro and his insectoid preoccupations everywhere, but somehow, something appeared to have been mislaid in the trip to Tinseltown. After the stubborn individuality of Cronos, Mimic seemed perplexingly generic.
It was only later that I learned about Mimic’s troubled shoot. Hired by Miramax producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein on the strength of his debut, del Toro’s experience of making Mimic was not unlike David Fincher’s ordeal on the shoot of Alien 3.
del Toro’s ideas and designs were subjected to constant changes by committee. The script was repeatedly rewritten. When studio bosses grew nervous about the low-key direction the film was taking, they despatched second-unit directors to film some extra jump-scare sequences to placate what they assumed would be an audience drifting off in their local multiplex. The cut that arrived in cinemas in ’97 was trimmed of the atmospheric moments del Toro had shot, and replaced with extra sequences that had little to do with the director’s original ideas.
For a director as precise and methodical as del Toro, such interference must have been horrendous, and it’s unsurprising that he was reluctant to work within the Hollywood system again (thankfully, he did, and returned to shoot the rather good Blade II five years later).
After a period of more than a decade, in which time del Toro had publically disowned Mimic, he’s returned with a new director’s cut. Removing almost all the second-unit sequences he hated, while reinstating the atmospheric scenes he shot himself, the result is a film that is closer to the film del Toro originally wanted to make, and all the better for it.
Mister Funny Shoes
In an alternate reality where New York’s children are stricken with a deadly disease, insect expert Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) discovers that the illness is carried by cockroaches. Together with her colleague Peter (Jeremy Northam), they manage to rear a genetically altered cockroach called the Judas Breed, designed to kill off the disease-ridden insects and later die off themselves.
The experiment is a success. The disease is halted in its tracks, Susan and Peter are hailed as heroes, and later marry. Three years later, however, the couple’s meddling with nature has had an unforeseen consequence. The Judas Breed, far from dying out, has mutated into something huge, malevolent, and very hungry. Descending into Manhattan’s sewers, Susan and Peter, along with grumpy cop Leonard (Charles S Dutton) come face-to-face with a new type of insect that has learned to survive by imitating the very creatures that bred it.
From its opening shot, Mimic’s build up is almost flawless, and in hindsight, del Toro’s presence is far more obvious than I’d remembered. There’s a beautiful, eerily framed sequence in a hospital, with beds draped in luminous fabric. It appears to be a conscious reference to a similar shot in Cronos, and also a nod to the eerie set designs of David Cronenberg’s films, especially Dead Ringers – though the fact that production designer Carol Spier worked on both Mimic and most of David Cronenberg’s films probably has much to do with this.
The Judas Breed insects, too, are an obvious del Toro hallmark. Interestingly, the director had no intention of employing cockroaches as a basis for his creatures – it was the studio’s idea, much to his chagrin – but he invests them with typical care, and convincing detail. There’s a great little moment, early in the film, where Sorvino’s character, having carefully lifted a baby Judas bug out of a cereal box, is bitten on the hand by the thing, just as Federico Luppi was bitten by the tenacious, insect-like contraption in Cronos. It’s a scene that playfully draws on the imagery of del Toro’s earlier movie, while also posing an important question that will be answered later on: if the baby Judas bugs are this nasty and aggressive, what are the parents like?
Thematically, Mimic offers an alternate take on the old ‘playing God’ sci-fi principle. Rather than making the quaint B-movie suggestion that humanity shouldn’t meddle with nature, Mimic suggests instead that, for every advance science makes, there’s inevitably an unforeseen drawback. By saving an entire generation of Manhattan’s children, Sorvino’s entomologist unwittingly causes the death of others, as demonstrated in one quite shocking sequence.
There are other themes here, too, more clearly expressed in the director’s cut, about one form of society preying and exploiting another (the monsters first make themselves known in a sweat shop beneath a church).
del Toro returns to a theme explored briefly in Cronos here as well – the idea that insects, rather than humankind, are God’s chosen ones. This is illustrated in scenes that once again recall del Toro’s first film; in one memorable moment, the young Chuy (Alexander Goodwin) encounters the full-grown Judas insects in an abandoned church, its statues wrapped in polythene, an effigy of Christ lying broken on the floor. God, it seems, has turned his back on humanity, and is now batting for the insect team.
Although Mimic has its roots in B-movies, its creatures and ideas are executed with real conviction, giving it an identifiable edge over similar 90s fare, such as The Relic and Species. The concept of an insect being able to disguise itself as a human is a fantastic one, and when we briefly glimpse these monsters in the first act, they’re unforgettably menacing. Silent figures apparently clad in long trench coats, they’re among the most arresting creatures in recent years, and brought to life with some brilliantly deployed practical effects and only minimal CGI.
Can I eat it or will it eat me?
In its restored form, Mimic now works much better as a film of atmosphere and suspense. The reintroduction of a key scene, in which it’s revealed Susan is pregnant, actually leads to a much more effective pay-off later on. Armed with this knowledge, husband Peter’s sudden change of character from bespectacled boffin to quasi action hero makes far more sense: like the Judas Breed, he’s attempting to protect his genetic legacy.
Some of the problems with Mimic inevitably remain. This is something of a transitional movie for del Toro, as like the creatures in the film itself, he metamorphoses – in his case, from a low-budget indie director to one with the resources to swing a camera around in an action scene. As a result, Mimic’s more violent moments aren’t handled as well as the slow-burning ones, and the faster-paced third act, set in a maze of Manhattan sewers, is less interesting than the idea-laden first two.
It’s sad, too, that del Toro was never given the opportunity to shoot the ending he originally wanted. I won’t spoil the film by discussing either the one he intended or the one we’re left with, but I think you can probably guess which would have been better. Annoyingly, studio interference means that del Toro’s dark conclusion will forever remain an idea on paper.
Appreciating the circumstances under which it was made, and the flaws that have resulted, Mimic is nevertheless a superior monster movie that is, particularly in this new cut, unmistakeably del Toro’s own. Although uneven, it’s a bubbling stew of ideas, arresting imagery, and some truly great creature effects. It takes all the usual staples of the B-movie – hubristic scientists, a striking, melodramatic 50s throwback score courtesy of Marco Beltrami, and creatures that prefer to live in sewers – and uses them to create a collision of sci-fi, horror, slasher movie and fantasy.
One astonishing sequence alone, where Susan stares at two photographs of Judas Breed wing, and realises that they fit together to form an abominable impersonation of a human face, is enough to ensure that Mimic deserves a place on the list of great creature features, along with such films as Them! and Tarantula.
When forced by the studio to change his creatures from tree beetles to cockroaches, del Toro resolved to make, to paraphrase his own words on the Blu-ray extras, the best damn giant cockroach movie he could. With this new iteration of Mimic, he’s definitely succeeded.
Mimic: Director’s Cut is out on Blu-Ray on 31st October.