‘Krampus’ and ‘Crimson Peak’ anchor creepy Legendary Comic-Con panel

I remember when Legendary Pictures threw a panel in a smaller room in the San Diego Convention Center, giving away copies of “Mass Effect 2” to anyone who showed up to hear them talk about their plans for movies like “Seventh Son,” “The Great Wall,” and an adaptation of “Mass Effect.”

They've come a long way. At that point, they were partnered with Warner Bros., and they were looking to define who they were are a company. Oh, sure, they were major financial and creative players on any number of big films already, like Nolan's first two Batman films, Snyder's “300” and “Watchmen,” “The Hangover,” “Inception,” and my beloved “Where The Wild Things Are.” But talking to Thomas Tull, talking to Jon Jashni, it was clear that what they craved were films that were theirs from start to finish, movies that they felt undisputedly reflected their sensibilities. It was strange seeing them do a separate panel that year. “Sucker Punch” was on display in Hall H as part of the Warner Bros panel, but they also had their own personal projects they were presenting. It felt like the beginning of the schism that eventually led to the company moving to Universal, where they've just had their first gigantic hit as a team in the form of “Jurassic World”. It's interesting that Universal did not come to the convention this year. The panel in Hall H today was Legendary, start to finish, and was about the movies that they've been working on internally, films that are personally important to Thomas Tull in very particular ways.

One of the very first things they made was “Trick 'r Treat,” the anthology horror film by Michael Dougherty, and I can tell you from repeated conversations that it was not for lack of trying that the film never really got a fair shot in theaters. Legendary really loved the movie, and they believed in it, and they simply did not have the muscle at the time to figure out how to get audiences to show up for it, or even to get Warner Bros. to give it a release that would at least give it a chance. It's got a cult following now, and I am very fond of it, but it was an early disappointment for the company. Being able to bring Michael Doughterty to Hall H with another holiday-related horror comedy has got to feel good for all involved, and I'm pleased to report that “Krampus” looks like it could be something special.

We're going to get a whole lot of “Krampus” in movies and other media soon. It's like all of American pop culture figured this thing out at the same time. For those who still aren't aware of what Krampus is, he's part of European folklore. He is the dark alternative to Santa Claus. Good children are brought toys. Bad children are put in a sack and beaten with sticks… or worse. It's an irresistible horror movie concept, and the footage they showed here used familiar lines to spectacularly sinister effect. “He sees you when you're sleeping” becomes ominous when it's something totally different crawling around on your roof. By the time Kevin Smith finishes with his “Anti-Claus,” which basically reunites the entire cast of “Tusk,” Doughterty's film will already be ramping up its campaign, and this is the bigger film by far. With a cast that includes David Koechner, Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Allison Tolman, and a whole lot of funny kids, it's clear that Doughterty and his co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields are aiming for the vibe that was so successfully captured by Joe Dante with “Gremlins,” a mix of real humor and crazy monster horror.

Scott and Collette joined Dougherty onstage and talked about how the film plays like a John Hughes comedy for the first third, then turns into something radically different. If you're a fan of “Trick 'r Treat,” this should be a kick for you. At one point, Collette hinted at a scene they shot involving “babies, toddlers, dogs, adults, teenagers, creatures puppets, and all of this in one living room.”

Scott added, “It's the kind of movie that's very scary, but it's really character driven. It's the kind of movie we haven't seen in some time.” We'll see for ourselves when “Krampus” comes down the chimney on December 4th.

One of the things that drives Legendary is the relationships they build with filmmaker over time. Like Dougherty, Guillermo Del Toro is someone who Thomas Tull feels strongly about, and I think both parties benefit here. Del Toro needs a patron, someone who is willing to gamble on his vision, someone who understands it. Since his experience on “Mimic,” Del Toro has worked in two different modes as a filmmaker. His Spanish-language films have always been where he worked in a more personal mode, while his English-language movies are his “young” films, the things that are more fun, but also less complex. It is only because of his trust in Legendary that Del Toro was able to make “Crimson Peak,” which he describes as the perfect hybrid of the things he's made in both modes.

And based on the footage shown in Hall H, it's going to be a beautiful middle ground, indeed. He could not have a better cast working for him this time, with Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and the giant acting muscle named Jessica Chastain as the primary chess pieces in what looks like a very dark game. There's been a lot of talk in the last few years about “strong female characters,” and there are a lot of interpretations of what that means. I know Guillermo's family, and when he says that his daughters and his wife are strong women, he's 100% correct. His wife Lorenza is his partner and his equal and the absolute center of his life, and if I had to make a list of marriages I admire most, his would be on it. As a Mexican man, he was certainly raised in a culture that defines gender roles in a specific way, and he's acutely aware of the way those roles are being redefined now, and by the ways they are reinforced by art and entertainment. “There is a secret gender war in this world,” Del Toro said onstage, and this is his way of firing some well-placed shots. Scary and gorgeous are his buzzwords this time out, and whatever narrative twists there are will be about subverting the way gender roles are normally played in these gothic supernatural tales.

Environment is a big part of horror, and they've got one hell of an environment this time. Allerdale Hall was built on a Toronto stage, a huge full-realized haunted house that may be the single most completely rendered articulation of Guillermo's imagination so far. It's like if they actually built all of the Jaegers in “Pacific Rim.” This time out, Guillermo has been able to bring to real, tangible life every corner of this diseased and bloodied husk, this living thing in which these three characters play out their tale of love and damage. Hiddleston said, “Getting to live inside his imagination was an enormous pleasure.”

But this isn't just about set dressing. The character work will be just as deep here. Del Toro wrote giant character packages for each actor, then brought them in for some in-depth table work, creating full histories and inner lives for each of them. They worked separately, since much of this film is about the secrets people keep. Del Toro talked about the way the bedroom of Lucille, the character played by Chastain, is a direct reflection of that process, every single detail there to inform the character and to express something to the audience. Chastain, in return, talked about the pleasures of keeping secrets from the other actors and being able to have so much to play.

Hiddleston talked about how we are all the sum total of our past, and these characters are all struggling to make their own destiny. He also said that “the last act of this film is an emotional rollercoaster, and we all had to hold our hands and work our way through it. The last 45 minutes of this is headlong.”

I can't wait.

I'm going to have a separate report on “Warcraft” for you, because I had a chance to speak to Duncan Jones privately about the film, and this is a pivotal moment for the entire idea of adapting games to film. I'm still not 100% sure I think the two forms of media really work that way, but if anyone's going to make a go of it, Jones is the one.

“Crimson Peak” is in theaters October 16.
“Krampus” is in theaters December 4.