Guillermo del Toro enters "Haunted Mansion"

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In his first move since deciding not to direct “The Hobbit” movies, Guillermo del Toro has decided to bring Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride to the big screen.

Del Toro announced his involvement in the project Thursday at Comic-Con during a surprise appearance at the end of the “Tron” session.

Del Toro, who checked out of “The Hobbit” in May because of production delays, will co-write and produce the movie, to be called “The Haunted Mansion.” He may direct the film as well. Before his appearance, he offered The Hollywood Reporter an exclusive account of how the project came together.

“It’s going to be a thrill ride for the whole family but it’s definitely going to be scary,” he said. “(Walt) Disney is one of the creators of some of the scariest images in my childhood. People forget that he not only made sweet images but also images of nightmare. We need to honor that side of the legacy.”

One thing is clear, though. The new Mansion movie will have no connection to Disney’s earlier attempt to turn the ride into a movie with the 2003 Eddie Murphy supernatural comedy also titled “The Haunted Mansion.”

Disney hopes to stir up mass appeal by drawing on Del Toro’s ability to summon up fantastic images like those he created in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy.”

“We want a scary movie that’s as scary as the ride. If you’re 11 years old, you can go on the ride but it’s still scary,” said Disney production head Sean Bailey. “Tonally we’re going to make a movie that is for families but is a fun and, at times, scary movie.”

Del Toro’s involvement began with a conversation between Bailey and Disney executive Brigham Taylor who, while going through the company’s library, alighted on “Mansion,” which they thought could benefit from a retelling. Del Toro was in New Zealand at the time working on “The Hobbit,” and Taylor flew down to visit the filmmaker to discuss “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” a horror thriller del Toro was producing for Disney label Miramax.

Taylor floated him the idea of redoing the Mansion movie, which del Toro sparked to do. But since he had his hands full with “Hobbit,” he hoped that Disney could wait to develop “Mansion” until he was done with those movies.

Then, to the dismay of many Tolkien and film fans alike, del Toro stepped off “Hobbit” in late May. “Part of the reason I had to get back is that I had projects pending. There were other obligations that were clashing,” he said.

There was no time for mourning as he immediately went back to work on the other projects that had been put in deep freeze, as he puts it. But he also wanted to tackle “Mansion” as soon as possible. “It’s not a movie I could postpone,” he said. “‘Haunted Mansion’ will take special development.”

So he and Disney started up talks again. The ride has long been one of del Toro’s obsessions. He was three the first time he rode it and even now uses it as a form of therapy. “When I’m depressed or when I have a problem, I ride the Haunted Mansion ride to clear my head,” he confessed.

He even has a room dedicated to “Mansion” in his home -- filled with secret bookcases, wallpaper from the original ride, and original art from Imagineer and “Mansion” ride co-designer Marc Davis -- something at which Bailey and Taylor marveled when they went over on a Saturday for a brainstorming session.

That session was such a success Disney quietly began to put a deal in place. Del Toro will co-write the script with Matthew Robbins, with whom he wrote his 1997 film “Mimic” and the upcoming “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” as well as produce. Whether he directs will be decided at a later date and depend on the status of his other projects.

The “Mansion” ride opened at Disneyland in 1969 and also has been a fixture at Walt Disney World since the 1970s. Walt Disney began drawing up plans for the attraction before his death in 1966, but without Disney as the final arbiter, the ride developed and ultimately combined two distinct visions: a scary and dark one, led by Imagineers Rolly Crump and Claude Coats, and a more humorous, tongue-in-check approach, led by Davis.

“The result is a unique combination of dark and fun,” said del Toro. “I want to really honor the two sensibilities.”

One of its conceits, which the movie will also use, is that the mansion is home to 999 haunts and 999 ghosts (with room for one more!).

Specific plot details -- as well as what kind of creatures will be featured -- are being guarded as if shut in a coffin, but one ghost that will appear is the Hatbox Ghost, who is dressed in a cloak and top hat, and whose head disappears and reappears in a hatbox the ghost holds in his hand.

“There are several mansions around the world and he is the spider in the center of the web of these mansions around the world,” said del Toro. “He will be a pivotal figure in the screenplay.”

Del Toro and Disney are anticipating a longer-than-usual development process. He wants to not only nail down a script but also the designs of the ghostly multitude.

He also wants to spend time creating a visually stylized world not just for the mansion but for the “real” world as well, mixing the ideas of the original concept drawing with his own visual signature. The last thing he wants is a mansion movie with a creaky musty tone.

“We want to make a haunted house movie for the 21st century,” he said.