Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous Gothic romance Crimson Peak arrives in cinemas on Friday. It’s a labour of love for the maker of Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and Pacific Rim, and it’s been years in the making, and we had the chance to sit down with the filmmaker to talk about this beautiful, dark film.
Crimson Peak is the story of Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a young American woman who marries the mysterious Englishman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and moves with him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to their cavernous, rotting country estate in Northern England. Edith has always been able to see ghosts, and it’s not long before she realises that something is terribly wrong at Crimson Peak.
“Gothic romance is very important in my childhood and my teenage years,” he told us. “And it’s been 40 years since I saw a Gothic romance treated the way it was treated in the golden era of moviemaking, before it went into being B-movie territory, of somebody with a candle and cobwebs and no set, you know?”
“The first movie I saw when I was four was Wuthering Heights, with my mother. I really missed the grandeur of Rebecca or the grandeur of Dragonwyck with Vincent Price, these lavish productions that touched the border of fairytale or horror. I think it’s infected by both.”
“It’s not a horror film even if it’s marketed like one, and I wanted to bring that unique flavour of the gothic romance, that sweet and sour, love and death, back into the discussion of films.”
Crimson Peak is a film that wears its influences on its sleeve and plays by the rules of the genre. The classic archetypes are here, even if they are a little…twisted. But this isn’t a pastiche, this is a sincere throwback.
“Every movie I make I get high on my own supply, I’m completely a slave to the substance,” del Toro enthuses. “So I’m not rephrasing, I’m phrasing. I try to change things enough, I attempted a melodramatic visual tone for example. I tried to make the visuals and the audio design and the camerawork sort of be melodramatic in itself, so that it accommodates a world where you can have a matron looking at you from an oil painting! It needs to be a little heightened, so if you don’t feel it in your gut, tonally it wouldn’t work.”
“You always work with your actors and you say the tone is here but the emotions need to be real. They need to be real and in spite of the fact that they’re going to be delivering monologues and lines that are going to be arch, they need to internalise them. So you need to truly do it half gut, half intellectual.”
“And at the same time you try to reformulate the gender politics of the genre, they are tweaked. That’s part of why it was difficult to mount, because it was R rated and female-centric. I think that the core of Gothic romance is very feminine.”
That process also involved updating the sex and violence for a modern audience. As del Toro explains, shocking your audience in this genre isn’t anything new…
“Well, the funny thing is, when Gothic romance was at the height of its popularity in England in the 19th century, it was really titillating,” he explains. “It had sex and extreme violence for its time. There’s a famous painting of Victorian ladies in a drawing parlour reading The Monk, Matthew G Lewis’ novel, and one of them is watching the door to make sure the husbands don’t come in.”
“It was really bloody and it had huge sexual perversion, and there’s a certain heightened form of melodrama and exaggeration that comes with Gothic romance. I always quote Lord Byron when he said, and this could have been said by any B-movie producer in the ’50s, he said ‘If everything else fails, shock them!’ So there’s a certain lurid attraction, if you don’t assume it, you’re not doing a proper Gothic romance. You need to tweak it a couple of notches from the 1800s.”