Del Toro says kids and scares mix well

This film image released by Universal Pictures shows, from left, Isabelle Nélisse, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier and Jessica Chastain in a scene from "Mama." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)

TORONTO - Horror master Guillermo del Toro knows what it takes to inject scares into a script: kids.

The revered filmmaker's most beloved creepfests are studded with youngsters precisely because children are essential to crafting a good fright, he said during a recent stop in Toronto to promote his latest thriller.

That ghost story — "Mama" — is a prime example. It centres on two young girls who fall under the watch of a fiercely possessive spirit when they are left to fend for themselves in the woods.

The "Pan's Labyrinth" visionary suggests kids and scares go hand-in-hand because children are more open to the "other world."

"There is nothing that prevents a child from being able to see things that adults don't see, that is the first thing," says a chatty Del Toro, slipping easily into mini-lectures on his various film philosophies.

"The second thing is that I believe that horror stories came out of fairy tales.... The movie opens like 'Hansel and Gretel' — the father taking the two kids to the forest to kill them, they find a cabin and in the cabin lives something terrible. And the ending of the movie is also very fairy tale. And I think they come from the same root — the innocent facing the horror and being able to change because of that."

Del Toro's distinctive take on shock and dread can be traced back to his own imagination-filled childhood. The Mexican-born filmmaker says those earliest fantasies have inspired pretty much all of his adult endeavours.

"My entire imaginary world was created before I was an adolescent," insisted del Toro, whose wild film forays include the bugs-gone-wrong tale "Mimic," the monster-laden "Hellboy" franchise, the chilling "The Devil's Backbone" and the creepfest "The Orphanage."

"And so I have an incredibly obsessive, minute preoccupation with things that most people left behind when they were kids. I think about ghosts, I reflect about ghosts, I think about monsters in a very, very obsessive way."

Hence, his passion for a new vision of the beloved children's tale "Pinocchio."

Del Toro says his involvement in a rumoured reboot has yet to be finalized but he's already drumming up ideas for how he would tackle the classic fable about a wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy.

"Pinocchio gets punished over and over again in the book. And the Disney movie is not absent of that moral darkness. It's very scary," says the 48-year-old del Toro.

"The Disney movie is very scary. And it is one of my favourite Disney movies. But my Pinocchio will be very, very different."

The story's dark morality themes are ripe for exploration, he says, drawing analogies to another classic monster tale that fuels his grotesque fantasies.

"Pinocchio is Frankenstein, in a way. Pinocchio is a character abandoned by his creator in a world that is uncaring and brutal. And he has to find himself and who he is. So those things are very much attractive to me."

The acclaimed writer-director acts as producer on "Mama," which he says he closely monitored while simultaneously working on his upcoming summer robot blockbuster "Pacific Rim."

"Mama" is actually the brainchild of Argentine co-writer-director Andrés Muschietti, who first caught Del Toro's attention with a film short based on a mysterious, ghostly mother figure.

Del Toro says he was eager to help give the rookie filmmaker the platform to attempt a feature-length creepfest, but admits he took a very active role in developing the script and advising production as filming unfolded in and around Toronto in the fall of 2011.

"I really get involved in the movies I produce," says Del Toro, whose diverse producing credits include "Biutiful," "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Puss in Boots" and the Canadian co-production "Splice," directed by Vincenzo Natali.

"Most of the time, I'm very involved, I'm very much there with the director working away and helping them finish the movie. The rare exception for me is, for example, 'Splice' ... where Vincenzo basically said, 'Just support me, just help me finance it and that's it."

For "Mama," del Toro agrees it was key to secure a stellar pair of child actors who would carry much of the film's key edge-of-your seat moments.

After seeing "hundreds" of girls in New York, the United Kingdom and Los Angeles, del Toro says they settled on two Canadians — Megan Charpentier as the sensitive Victoria and Isabelle Nelisse as the younger, more feral, sister Lilly.

"Zero Dark Thirty" star Jessica Chastain plays opposite them as bass-playing slacker Annabel. Her extended adolescence is cut short when she is reluctantly drawn into a caregiving role by her boyfriend, played by "Game of Thrones" actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who insists they become guardians to his long-lost nieces.

Sporting tattoos and jet black hair chopped into a pixie cut, the red-headed Chastain is worlds away from the more refined characters that catapulted her to recent stardom, notes Guillermo, who credited his stars with diving into the project wholeheartedly.

"Jessica came in, she wanted to transform herself, she wanted to play a different role than she had before and she jumped right in," he says of her transformation.

"Nikolaj is better known to American audiences for his role in 'Game of Thrones' and (his character) Kingslayer is not exactly the warmest character ... and he creates this character that is so likable and almost like a goofy adolescent."

Casting such mainstream stars could open the film to an audience that doesn't typically care for genre fare, he allows, while railing against the stigma that scary movies often face.

"You should be able to see any genre of movie without prejudice but ... people have prejudice against horror, they say: 'I don't like horror.' And when you talk to them you realize that's not entirely true. They end up mentioning one or two great movies that they liked," says del Toro, who expects to return to Toronto to shoot the TV series "The Strain" and the film "Crimson Peak."

"In any genre there are extremes. When you describe a comedy you can describe the most scatalogical, obscene, broad, raunchy comedy or you can describe Woody Allen. And they belong in the same genre. It's the same for every genre. You can do very crass things or do them with a lot of care and love and eye to detail. And I think 'Mama', whatever genre you want to put it in, it's a movie done by people that care."

"Mama" opens Friday.