"In this case then the house is still a character, but it is one that watches."
Guillermo del Toro's latest genre opus is Crimson Peak, a linear, universal-themed film at its Gothic, gory core, that encapsulates grand themes of love, madness, murder, and the entwining of all three. And it wouldn't be a del Toro production if there wasn't an unnatural dimension, with some eerie, shuddering ghosts haunting the life of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the American bride of British landed gentleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who travels to the Moors to live in the dark, dilapidated mansion of Allerdale Hall with Sharpe and Sharpe's cold sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). There are so many tropes emblematic of Gothic literature here - the brooding romance, the secrets hidden behind closed doors, the skeletons rattling in the closet - that lend the film a vintage feel, and which combined with lurid lashings of red and the presence of cleaver-slain ghouls in the bathtub evoke the lurid horror stylings of Roger Corman and Mario Bava.
"I was influenced by [famed Hammer Films director] Terence Fisher, I love his camerawork, and the colour saturation of Bava," del Toro asserts. "I wanted to make the movie have a classic, lavish Hollywood production from before these guys though, because the gothic romance becomes a B-movie in the '50s and '60s, and I wanted to hark back to before then when they were doing Jane Eyre or Dragonwyck with Vincent Price. But the rest of the influences remain literary, like Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey."
"That ideal of [artist René] Magritte's This Is Not A Pipe … It needs to look like a pipe, 100%, but then you subvert it in very small ways."
It has been a predilection of del Toro's throughout his film career to deify the fantastical and demonise the human, something that again harks back to the likes of Frankenstein (there are explicit references to Mary Shelley's classic throughout). It also rears its head in Crimson Peak, but del Toro's aim is to present such themes in a newly creative light, thus making the statement striking once more.
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"What I try to do with every movie, be it Pacific Rim or The Devil's Backbone, is that ideal of [artist René] Magritte's This Is Not A Pipe. It needs to look like a pipe, 100%, but then you subvert it in very small ways. The fairy tale structure and Gothic romance is very similar. If you think Jane Eyre, it becomes Rebecca, easily. If you think Dragonwyck, if you think even The Secret Garden - very similar to the fairy tale structure: innocent woman falls in love or is taken to a dark brooding Byronic figure, linked to a place that could or could not be haunted but is definitely hiding a secret that no one talks about, which the woman discovers.
"Within that linear structure, you fracture many of those lines," he continues. "It becomes more a female-centric story; you make every male rescuer useless; you fracture the sanctity of the heroine by showing her have sex with the Byronic figure in a powerful moment of renewal for them both. You take the ghosts and instead of making them progressively scarier, you make them reveal themselves as almost benign; you take the villains and you make them more human as the movie goes on. So just like I tried to fracture the fairy tale in Pan's Labyrinth, I attempted the same here."
Even in post-production del Toro continued to play with the genre, with the feature of jump scares, soaring orchestral soundscapes and iris wipes placed strategically in the front half of the film, before giving way to other tricks of the editing palette.
"The trick I committed to, right or wrong, is that we opened with a very eerie scene that happened to my mother, seeing the ghost of her grandmother when she was a child, exactly as it is in the movie. That moment is quiet, but its effect completely shocked us when we were shooting it. When I went through the screenplay with Alfonso Cuarón he said if the film is going to ride on misdirection, then the mother has to be frightening. So we started with calculated jump scares, then we change the scares as it becomes more character-driven."
As gloriously brooding and smouldering as the cast may be, the true trump card is the set design. Allerdale Hall is an atmospheric, decaying, corporeal setting, its multi-tiered construction hiding a myriad of baroque and unsettling details. The mansion itself is built on uniquely blood-red clay; we see the viscous earth begin to ooze between the cracks, stain pinafore dresses, and bleed through the snow in winter, hence the film's title (and again touches on literary classics like The Fall Of The House Of Usher). Del Toro is swift to break away from the house as character cliche, however.
"If you are doing a haunted house movie then the house is sentient, evil. In a Gothic romance the building is an extrapolation of a spiritual state. In this case then the house is still a character, but it is one that watches. One of the things we do with Crimson Peak is that when Lucille gets tense, the house breathes and the fireplace roars. Jessica plays Lucille as incredibly suffocating. She too is in love, but unlike Edith she is suffocating. With Rebecca you have Mrs Danvers linked to Manderley; here Lucille is Allerdale Hall."