by Shayna Grissom
I am drawn to films that are big, shiny and boldly colored. The Fall, What Dreams May Come, The Fountain, and of course Pan’s Labyrinth, are films that pull my attention every time. I want to feel immersed in a film’s colors and shapes. In an age of loud and flashy, the symbolism behind imagery is often left more to marketing strategy and lacks the sincerity that I need to connect with a film.
If there is any way to describe the films of director Guillermo Del Toro, it’s sincerity. Every detail and every aspect of his films are laid with the utmost care. The film Crimson Peak is no different. From the wigs to the floors, everything in this film was meticulously detailed and pushes the plot further.
In Crimson Peak, Edith Cushing wrote a book that was widely misunderstood. She had stated multiple times that her story was not a ghost story, but rather a story with ghosts in it. The ghosts were just a metaphor. Del Toro ironically fell into the same conundrum. “We all together decided it was a movie about love, about different types of love. Possessive love, unselfish love, love that bonds with pain, and love that bonds with joy.” However, his 2015 gothic romance starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston was packaged by Legendary Productions as a horror film.
Okay, so maybe it’s understandable as to why it was caged as a horror film but, moviegoers were perplexed when they arrived to find a beautiful, romantic film. The effort and detail of this extraordinary film was lost on people who were anticipating jump scares. Not that there is anything wrong with escapism featuring demonic nuns or a giant killer shark, it’s just that what people were expecting when, instead, they were given a lush, slow-burn piece of cinema.
Del Toro made an authentic gothic romance, full colors and authentic décor to set the mood of each set. He notes that paintings were a large inspiration, Caspar David Friedrich and John Atkinson Grimshaw were credited. Also noted was the film adaptation of Jane Eyre, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and Dragonwyck.
In a world oversaturated with CGI, Crimson Peak only has a few scenes aided by special effects. The main setting, Allerdale Hall was created from a giant soundstage in Ontario. It gives the house a gritty and cold appearance. Del Toro brought in items from his own collection for props. That collection, by the way, is known as the Bleak House, or the exhibit At Home With Monsters. Del Toro is the ultimate horror fanboy, and his exhibit is the stuff of nightmares (in a good way).
Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) falls in love with Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a mysterious Baronet who is down on his luck. After the untimely death of Edith’s father, she marries Thomas and travels to the Sharpe ancestral home, Allerdale Hall. There, she finds herself at odds with Thomas’s older sister, Lucille (Chastain) and the other inhabitants of the family home.
Unlike most gothic romances, Del Toro’s main character is a woman who wants more than just love. She wants independence and freedom from the confines of her station as a Victorian woman. Edith is the feminist heroine we deserve. (The Mary Sue wrote a fine piece on this entitled The Subtle Feminism of Guillermo Del Toro’s Forgotten Crimson Peak.) While on the flip side, Lucille makes an excellent villain. When Jessica Chastain asked Del Toro for some insight on Lucille, Del Toro replied, “She doesn’t blink.”
Clothing was a strong part of the narrative in this film and Victorian society. Thomas and Lucille are wearing clothing that was about twenty years out of style for the period. While they look sharp and rigid in their outdated duds, Edith’s gowns become fuller and softer as she falls in love with Thomas.
Thomas was raised by Lucille. He was an effeminate, wimpy, disappointment to his parents. He wouldn’t have survived childhood if it were not for Lucille. There’s a whole lot of psychology to unpack around this relationship, but that’s not for me to tell, it’s for you to see. And Del Toro didn’t just tell the story, he wrote biographies for each individual character. They had secrets they couldn’t tell other cast members. The furniture was even designed to be oversize in some scenes to make Edith appear small and vulnerable in the foreboding mansion.
In the novelization, Allerdale Hall had a life of its own. The film version of the house could not speak per say, but Del Toro had the word fear written in the wallpaper. He doesn’t believe in subliminal messages, but he does believe in planning every shot to set the mood.
“That was my first day on set,” Tom told me as he flipped through the pages of my book to land on these photos.
It makes sense that Del Toro wanted to do these photos first. He wanted Hiddleston to understand who Thomas was before he fell in love with Edith. In the film, the guilt and remorse for both women is evident on Tom’s face. It makes it the only redeeming quality for the character in my mind.
The ghosts themselves were only a small portion of the film, but their presence is felt constantly. Edith first sees her mother who is played by Doug Jones. (If you’re not familiar with Doug Jones and want to melt your brain, IMDB him. Go on, it’s astonishing!) Del Toro has worked with Doug Jones and Javier Botet on many films. For the kind of monsters he creates, he needs people who are experienced and capable of enduring hours of discomfort. In The Shape Of Water, they attempted to use a stunt double for Jones and it ended with the double puking and passing out on set. Skill aside, even Botet and Jones had to relent to CGI in some scenes where using an actor was not humanly possible.
The ghosts were not the monsters in this film. I don’t really think there were monsters here to begin with. I know Del Toro is synonymous with horror, but I feel that is also strongly misunderstood. Guillermo Del Toro makes fairy tales. From trolls to vampires, shape shifting insects to Victorian Black Widowers, Labyrinths to fishmen, Del Toro’s stories are wrapped in myths and folklore. Out of his nine films, Crimson Peak holds a special place in my heart because of its authenticity to the genre and its gorgeous imagery. People can categorize it however they wish, but in my closeted goth heart, it’s my favorite film of this decade.
That’s it. This is the peak I die on.
If you’re interested, Arrow has a Crimson Peak Special Edition Blu Ray that I highly recommend. [And while we are recommending things, be sure to check out Shayna’s debut novel, A Soul Reclaimed, on Sands Press available April 15th. Ed.]
The Art Of Darkness, Crimson Peak (Novel), At Home With Monsters Exhibition. All credit goes to the creators and producers associated with Crimson Peak