The Stories and Monsters That Inspired Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak

By  · Published on October 16th, 2015

Crimson Peak is one costly horror movie. The Blumhouse model ‐ small risk, high reward ‐ has taken over the genre. We don’t see $20–30 million dollar slasher pics or haunted house movies anymore. Luckily for co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro, he got to make a $50 million dollar horror film. Then again, to del Toro, Crimson Peak isn’t a horror picture; it’s a gothic romance, first and foremost.

Set in the late 19th century, aspiring horror writer Edith (Mia Wasikowska) meets the acquaintance of an irresistible Englishman, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). After the two fall for each other, Sharpe brings his new love to Cumbria to live with him and his ice-cold sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), the 19th century version of the third wheel. Edith soon realizes the three are not alone in their grand, crumbling mansion. Both the Sharpe’s home and its inhabitants harbor secrets.

Crimson Peak isn’t the kind of major release we see often, because most studio films aren’t influenced by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe. “I read E.T.A. Hoffman, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and ‘Great Expectations’ ‐ everything that’s been affected by the gothic spirit,” del Toro says, sharing his references. “When I was a kid, one of my favorite writers was Edgar Allan Poe. He has that beautiful tale, ‘The Full of the House of Usher.’ Essentially, Crimson Peak is a cross between a classic gothic romance, like ‘Jane Eyre’ or something like that, and ‘The House of Usher.’ I tried to capture the dark spirit that gothic romance has. Marketing may contradict me, but Crimson Peak is not a horror film; it’s a mixture of darkness and beauty, melodrama and eerie atmosphere.”

Del Toro wanted to update the gothic romance for a modern audience, by telling a darker, bloodier, and sexier story. He also wanted to throw a little gender politics into the mix. “Normally, in gothic romance, females end up being damsels in danger,” del Toro explains. “They end up being rescued by Fabio without a shirt. I wanted this movie to be very centric to the female figures. The movie tries to speak to different types of live: destructive, possessive, controlling, or liberating. At the end of the day, I wanted two opposite beings of love in the middle of the window, booking it out.” Shockingly, Fabio does not make a third act appearance to save Edith. In fact, for the most part, Crimson Peak’s plot is driven more by its two female characters than Thomas or Dr. Alan Michael (Charlie Hunnam).

The writer and director of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy is no stranger to monsters. Del Toro, even with The Strain, often shows his tortured creatures in an empathetic light. The monster ‐ or monsters, depending on how you interpret the film ‐ of Crimson Peak are tragic figures. “In order for the monster to be powerful, it needs to elicit it all from the audience,” del Toro says. “It depends on the proportions, emotionally or physically, of the creature. A lot of monsters are just monsters emotionally or psychologically, while others are physically or spiritually. A ‘monster’ means it’s unnatural, so it needs to be unnatural in something about it. I think they are more human, but ultimately enlarged creatures that represent our humanity ‐ the darker part of our humanity.”

As much as Del Toro loves the gothic romance, there are elements of the genre he wanted to twist, not just modernize. “Normally, in this genre, gothic romance, they push you towards rooting for the destruction of the villains,” he says. “As an audience member, I always like the villains more than I like the heroes. I tried on Devil’s Backbone ‐ and even something as commercial as Blade II ‐ to make the villains have a soul, to understand the tragedy of their world and their life. I think that makes for less of a ‘rah rah’ ending, but it makes it more emotional.”

[Minor Spoilers Ahead]

Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain bring a childlike quality to Thomas and Lucille. Their characters are haunted by their pasts, and that emotional anguish is what makes their monstrous sides so human. The roles of Thomas and Lucile required actors who can give internalized performances, which Hiddleston and Chastain are certainly capable of giving. “For Lucille I never thought of a particular actress, because I was always thinking of Joan Crawford,” Del Toro says with a laugh. “I was never thinking of a modern actress. In the case of Thomas, originally we had cast Benedict Cumberbatch ‐ and the screenplay for that was very different, I think. When Tom came onboard, I tried to model the character a little closer to him, to take advantage of the innate vulnerability he has. He’s also capable of projecting strength. When Jessica came onboard, I was so happy, because you could not ask for a more intelligent and capable actress.”

[Spoilers Over]

The dream is Crimson Peak has a wildly successful opening weekend, paving the way for more R-rated films from del Toro. The director has agonized over getting more adult projects off the ground, such as his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Del Toro still has hope for that project, but five or seven years from now, if Universal gives him the okay, he wants to publish a coffee table book, filled with concept art and images.

People often joke about how many movies Guillermo del Toro is attached to, but there’s a reason why that is: movies like Crimson Peak don’t get made overnight. “I’ll tell you, I’ve ceased trying to predict my life. I understand now if you want to make God laugh, tell him your career plans,” Del Toro half-jokes. “I think I’m going to do a small movie next. If Mountains of Madness opens up, that’s great. If Pacific Rim 2 happens finally, that’s great. I’m open to doing the things I’m interested in, and only those things. When people ask me, ‘Why do you have five or six projects at a time?’ it’s because you don’t know which one will come through. You never know. I was on the verge of staring At the Mountains of Madness, and that hurts.”

Crimson Peak is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.