Summer Shocks 1997: Mimic

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Guillermo del Toro’s American debut

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

1997 was supposed to be a big year for big bugs. Director Paul Verhoven adapted Robert A. Heinlein’s celebrated novel Starship Troopers, the tale of humanity’s bloody war against a galaxy-spanning arachnoid army, into a super-sized extravaganza. But before Starship Troopers‘ November release, a smaller big bug movie made its way to theaters, Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic. As it turned out, the public wasn’t that interested in either one. But while Verhoven’s film has gained cult status in the years since, Mimic remains the Big Bug Bonanza That Time Forgot.

Del Toro was still early in his career in ’97 and although his first film Cronos (1993) had impressed genre fans and the critical community alike, he was far from a household name. Mimic was only his second feature film and his first US film. Working for the notoriously hands-on Dimension Films, del Toro encountered the kind of creative interference from Dimension head Bob Weinstein that had plagued other filmmakers in the past. Because of this, and because Mimic didn’t completely reflect his own vision, del Toro has expressed his unhappiness with the finished film.

Since ’97, as del Toro’s artistic and commercial clout has risen, Mimic has been left to languish, with no later-day appreciation coming its way. It’s probably fair to say that many of his newer fans that were introduced to his work through Blade II, the Hellboy films, or Pan’s Labyrinth may have never bothered with Mimic. Its reputation as a failure precedes it.

But should a big bug thriller directed by del Toro, with a screenplay co-written by del Toro with Dragonslayer writer/director Matthew Robbins (with uncredited script assists by Piranha‘s John Sayles), production design by Cronenberg regular Carol Spier, editing by Patrick Lussier (now the director of My Bloody Valentine 3-D and Drive Angry) and creature design work by the legendary Rob Bottin be so ignored? I don’t think so! This is a movie that begs to be revisited. Looking at it thirteen years later, it’s clear that Mimic is a flawed effort but despite the compromising circumstances of its production, del Toro still managed to create an atmospheric horror movie that bears his unique artistic imprint.

Based on the short story of the same name by Donald A. Wolheim, Mimic begins in New York City as the children of NYC are succumbing to a lethal virus spread by the city’s teeming cockroach population. Enter brilliant young entomologist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino, then a recent Oscar winner for 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite) who likes to think outside the box (or, in this situation, think outside the roach motel) and creates what she dubs the Judas Breed, which sounds like it could be the name of a rock band, but is instead a new species of insect (just what the world needs – more bugs!). This Judas Breed will infiltrate the cockroach community, then release an enzyme that will quickly kill off these disease spreaders by increasing their metabolism. Much confounding pseudo-scientific talk ensues but what’s important is that Susan becomes the latest in the long line of cinematic scientists who lives to regret tampering with nature.

After these opening scenes demonstrating Susan’s success in saving a generation of children, Mimic moves ahead three years to show the sizable consequences of her actions. Literally sizable in that the bugs she engineered are now about six feet tall, walking around NYC, and up to God knows what. You’d think that these bugs would be hard to miss and be causing a real panic but per their nature, these bugs have the ability to mimic their prey and their prey is now man. Their mimicry of man might not hold up to close inspection but the good news for these bugs is that most people don’t spend a lot of time observing other people. Life is hectic – who can be bothered to see if the person they walked past on a rainy night was actually a giant bug? Even an entomologist like Susan would have to look twice.

Susan is now married to Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam), who she met three years earlier during the health crisis through his position at the Center for Disease Control. When evidence that the Judas Breed has evolved in the intervening years, rather than dying off as Susan designed them to do, the happy couple have to put their lives aside in order to discover how big this bug problem is.

Getting drawn into events is Josh, Peter’s co-worker at CDC (played by Josh Brolin – his part is so small, maybe they didn’t think it was worth giving Brolin a new name to respond to); Leonard (Charles S. Dutton, of Alien 3), a transit system police officer; a shoeshine man named Manny (Giancarlo Giannini, who has recently appeared in both of Daniel Craig’s Bond films) who works on a subway platform, and his autistic son, Chuy (Alexander Goodwin) who has a talent for click-clacking spoons together in a way that resembles the insect’s method of communication.

By Mimic‘s mid-point, each of these characters have made their way, whether through voluntary investigation, or by bug express, to the inner depths of the NYC sewer system – now known as home court to the Judas Breed. Once the movie moves below ground, to survive (and to save the world) Mimic‘s human characters are forced to strategize on the fly against an insect army that has every advantage over their prey.

If this all sounds like conventional monster movie material, it is. I wouldn’t call that a negative, though. The success of genre movies often lies in how well familiar plots and characters are recycled and for the most part, del Toro does a very solid job with Mimic. Had the studio not meddled so much, Mimic would surely have been an even stronger film. Would it have been a classic, though? No, just a better film than it is. Maybe even only incrementally better. But better is good and it’s a shame that Mimic wasn’t all that it could’ve been. Perhaps the promised Director’s Cut from Criterion will rectify that, if it’s ever released.

As is, though, there’s much to appreciate about Mimic. While it doesn’t rate as one of del Toro’s more personal films, many of the trademarks that run throughout his work are prominently featured. With Manny and Chuy living across from a rundown mission and with Manny carrying his crucifix and rosary beads with him, there’s the Catholic imagery that’s common to del Toro’s films; there’s also, obviously, his fetish for bugs (del Toro treats them with a reverence that seems both scientific and rapturously religious); and with the characters of Manny and Chuy, del Toro again portrays an older guardian caring for a much younger child (a similarly touching relationship was seen in Cronos between Jesús Gris and his granddaughter).

What’s bad about Mimic is mostly confined to its last ten-to-fifteen minutes (which unfortunately means that the movie can’t help but leave viewers with a negative impression) as a character that should’ve been blown to pieces survives with barely a mark on them and the defeat of the bugs comes off as too patly accomplished (it’s nice when a train comes down the tracks just when you need one to!). Mimic‘s concluding scenes take a smart film and squashes its brains like a boot to a bug’s head. That its badly fumbled climax isn’t enough to ruin the movie says something about the quality found in the rest of the film.

The most important thing that del Toro brings to Mimic is his unerring knack for mood. Even when the dramatic elements are lacking (Sorvino and Northam make for bland leads), the brooding atmosphere holds the movie together. Del Toro also expertly applies the time-tested monster movie tactic of keeping his bugs in the shadows as much as possible, saving the first big, full-on reveal – when Susan is abducted on a subway platform and flown away down a train tunnel – until almost an hour into the film (that this moment was unwisely spoiled in the trailers and TV spots did the movie no favors).

Given his talent, it was only a matter of time before del Toro was able to get a better handle on how to bring out his best in Hollywood. It just took his experiences on Mimic to work out the bugs.

Other horror films released in the summer of ’97:

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (May 23rd)

Spawn (July 31st)

Event Horizon (August 15th)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (August 29th)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1981:

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1982:

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1984:

Dreamscape (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1985:

Day of the Dead (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1986:

The Fly (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1987:

Predator

SUMMER OF 1988:

The Blob

SUMMER OF 1989:

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

SUMMER OF 1990:

Class of 1999

SUMMER OF 1991:

Body Parts

SUMMER OF 1992:

Single White Female

SUMMER OF 1993:

Jason Goes to Hell

SUMMER OF 1994:

The Crow

SUMMER OF 1995:

Tales from the Hood

SUMMER OF 1996:

The Craft

Source: Jeff Allard