As early as this past summer, Crimson Peak director Guillermo Del Toro was going to great lengths to emphasize that his moody, evocative thriller is not a horror film, nor a haunted house movie, but rather a lavish Gothic Romance that pays homage to many of the cinematic and literary touchstones that originally inspired him to become a director.
The atmospheric tale of love and death follows aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) as she falls for brooding aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and leaves turn-of-the-century New York to takes up residence in decaying Allerdale Hall on a barren stretch of northern England known as Crimson Peak. The ancestral home of her new husband and his inscrutable sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), the mansion holds all manner of secrets, and things get very dark, very fast. “I wanted the house to feel like an enchanted castle from a fairy tale, quite a sinister one,” Del Toro said in an interview with EW in July. “The house is really a rotting representation of the family that has inhabited it, more than a haunted house in a traditional sense. “It’s like a cage, a killing jar that you use to kill insects, that you kill butterflies with. That’s the house, the house basically is a sinister, sinister trap.”
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Del Toro, who co-wrote the film with Matthew Robbins and Lucinda Coxon, has described Crimson Peak as a movie that comes very close to a living painting — he constructed a crumbling, multi-level manse with a working elevator on a Toronto soundstage for the shoot — also promising fans a “perverse” period ghost story for adults, one that earns its R-rating. On the eve of Crimson Peak’s release, we asked the visionary Pan’s Labyrinth filmmaker to detail some key influences on both the narrative and the movie’s spectacularly sumptuous production design. Here’s what he had to say.
Ann Radcliffe’s novels
She was the grand master of Gothic Romance. In a time before “branding,” she was a brand — not quite like Dickens, but with an equally rabid following. She was intensely private and remained a bit of a mystery most of her life. Her dark sensibilities fueled wild speculations among her readers and detractors that she favored opiates and heavy meals before bed in order to dream up nightmares, that she was allergic to sunlight.
Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
He was (and is) the acknowledged master of the ghost story, but here he tries his hand at a fever-dream narrative of Gothic Romance that preserves the fairy tale enchantment that fuels the best of the genre.
Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca
Wound up tight and full of pent-up passion, this character was a big inspiration for the visuals of Lucille in Allerdale Hall. Mrs. Danvers is one with Manderley — the mansion in the film — and so is Lucille with the house at the top of Crimson Peak.
John Atkinson Grimshaw
This brilliant Victorian painter inspired the look of the film with his clouded, full moon landscapes and gaslit street vistas. Many shots strive to capture his pictorial beauty.
Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)
Visconti’s movie was the one I studied the most for harmony of colors and design of the waltzing scene in Crimson Peak. I admire this film greatly, and it contains the very best (and perhaps longest) party ever committed to film.
Caspar David Friedrich
The apex of Romantic painting. His work is so evocative and loaded with atmosphere. Gothic Romance has a powerful sense of loss and melancholy. Along with Piranesi, he portrayed ruins with a vivid sense of dark poetry.
Mario Bava and Terence Fisher
Their films truly captured a grandeur and extravagance by their elegant camera work and super-saturated colors and sumptuous textures. Bava is equally — if not more — effective in black and white. [Fisher pictured below]
Ever since I encountered them in a book as a child, the twisted faces and contorted bodies of the bog mummies impressed me enormously.
Gothic Revival architecture
Allerdale Hall has many layers: Medieval and Romantic foundations and then, at its most opulent, Gothic Revival, which became all the rage in 19th century England. The Sharpes went for a four-story-high foyer, with enough hubris not to think how costly and difficult it would be to repair it.
The opening encounter with the Mother Ghost is based on my mother’s memory of being visited by her dead grandmother while in bed as a child. She heard the bedsprings creak and could smell her faint perfume. Jessica Chastain wears my grandmother’s cameo — a memento that I have kept and used only on The Devil’s Backbone and two of my short Super-8 films.
I love Jack Clayton’s camera work, and we named one of Edith’s dresses the “Deborah Kerr” dress. I wanted to create a classical camera style for the film: creeping, craning, dollying as if we were shooting with large, blimped cameras. Clayton uses each shot with great precision.
One of the most influential Gothic tales. It permeates Rebecca, I Walked with a Zombie and even The Secret Garden in an oblique way. I paraphrase it in several moments of Crimson Peak and did a variation of the famous “rib-cage-to-rib-cage” monologue of Mr Rochester.
They have been present in all my films, but I really wanted to use them as a main metaphor of this one. Lucille collects butterflies and believes herself to be a powerful, nocturnal creature, much like a moth. She sees Edith as a fragile, silly thing that can be easily killed and mounted. I gave Jessica the idea to read Jean-Henri Fabre, a brilliant Victorian entomologist that was one of Luis Bunuel’s favorite authors.