Home Film ‘Crimson Peak’ Is Quintessential Guillermo Del Toro

‘Crimson Peak’ Is Quintessential Guillermo Del Toro

by Andrew J. Salazar
Mia Wasikowska with a bloodied hand stands in the crystal white snow of Crimson Peak.

Guillermo Del Toro is no stranger to widespread acclaim, especially from his ride or die legion of fans. Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy duology, the list of genre-bending, timeless masterworks goes on. Coming off his 2 Oscar wins for The Shape of Water in 2018, and moving into finally releasing his animated Pinocchio film from the pits of development hell along with an adaption of Nightmare Alley next year, this couldn’t be a more thriving time for the Mexican auteur. Though amongst all the praise and glory, something has still felt missing these last handful of years. Besides his Oscar-winning film, Del Toro’s works prior to the 2010s are what generally buzz conversations of his genius. Those aforementioned films did, after all, skyrocket his name to fame. His titles from the last decade, however, are just as crucial to the Del Toro canon and emphasize his greater influence as a filmmaker. One, in particular, has seemingly gotten by in its young life at the hands of few. But now that Crimson Peak has officially turned 5, it’s time to turn that few into many.

Del Toro’s trifecta of the 2010s (not counting his work on television) stand out vastly from one another. Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak, and The Shape of Water: all love letters penned from the ‘nichest’ corners of his mind. These 3 arguably boast more diversity in genre than Del Toro’s 5 films of the 2000s (3 comic-book adaptations and 2 Spanish-set fantasies). Not a criticism, as established, those films now flaunt an immovable place within the cultural zeitgeist. Though with a career notoriously marked by a slew of unrealized projects (more on this later), it’s not often recognized how the ideas that did make the cut still lead a crystal clear trajectory in Del Toro’s growth as a storyteller. In the eyes of many, Del Toro pulls ideas out of a hat and gambles on which one actually sees the light of day. Humorous sure, but this is far from the truth.

Each Del Toro project feels like a pivotal step for what would come later, take his work on Trollhunters paving the way for his upcoming first animated feature for instance. Despite this trajectory, Crimson Peak feels criminally unsung 5 years later. Pacific Rim continued its life with a sequel and more planned spin-offs. The Shape of Water literally set a new bar for the Academy. This leaves Crimson Peak feeling like the pushed aside middle child of this trio. This isn’t a call for a sequel, and ‘underrated’ gets tossed around very loosely in modern film discussion. But for cinema as quintessential as Crimson Peak, it just doesn’t feel like it gets enough recognition – especially when the current film industry is seeing less big-budget, R-rated projects heavily steeped in genre.

Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston dance the waltz as seen in Crimson Peak.
Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston in ‘Crimson Peak’ courtesy of Universal

You can easily trace Crimson Peak‘s short-lived spotlight back to its marketing. The timely October release and scare-heavy trailers sold a classic ‘Haunted House’ horror, when in reality, Del Toro’s film is a Gothic Romance. Set in the early 1900s, an aspiring American writer, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is swept away by a promising English baronet, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). They discover true love and marry, leading the young newlywed to her husband’s decaying mansion in the English hills. The age-old manor is slowly, but surely, sinking in red clay – the very source of Sharpe’s wealth. Here Edith is forced to live with her new sister-in-law, Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), a reserved yet commanding force who works to hide the true nature of the house and its endless secrets. Mystery lingers as untamed lust, envy and greed unfold between the mansion walls, not leaving enough room for the restless red-colored spirits who haunt them. When it snows on this cursed hill, the clay surfaces, making it seem as if the land bleeds. Given more than just red clay rises from beneath, a deeper meaning is given to the place locals call ‘Crimson Peak’.

Just like the clay at the center of its mystery, Crimson Peak is an amalgamation, but of genre. It would be novice to expect anything less from Del Toro. The Gothic elements call back to many classic tales, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s adaption of Rebecca and, of course, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. On the horror side, homage is paid to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. It’s a devilish blend that only this filmmaker could pull off so beautifully. And oh is Crimson Peak so god damn gorgeous. To contrast common period pieces that go for muted or sepia-toned color palettes, Del Toro turns the saturation on high. The result is an eye-popping picture that heightens the core emotions at play: fear, pain, and more importantly, love. Simply mesmerizing, avid fans will be quick to recognize the same shades of golden yellows, sea greens, and ruby reds found in Del Toro’s other works. It feels right at home in his filmography visually, while packing its own unique punch.

Red, a color mainly associated with passion, here instead intricately represents endless bloodshed. A twist that would suggest Crimson Peak is just as equal a horror film as it is a love story. Regardless of what might have been initially marketed to audiences in 2015, this film is a Gothic Romance from start to finish. Del Toro himself made this distinction clear to the studio from the get-go and repeatedly draws the line whenever given the chance. Yet, much like the rest of his repertoire, Crimson Peak utilizes horror not as a means to an end, but as a means for introspection. Yes, there are classic horror conventions such as jump scares, but it couldn’t be more obvious that Crimson Peak isn’t trying to evoke the same kind of high and dry fear other films heavily rely on. Del Toro is actively trying to get under your skin to achieve a hell of a cathartic viewing experience.

A red clay road leads up to the haunting manor of Crimson Peak under a gray sky.
Crimson Peak’ courtesy of Universal

The ghosts of our past and how we let them define us is a core theme in Crimson Peak. The film opens on a flashback in which Edith is visited by the charcoal black ghost of her recently deceased mother. The nature of this visit sets the groundwork for the rest of the narrative. Mother Ghost, dreadful in appearance, doesn’t necessarily come to haunt her child, but to warn her. “Beware of Crimson Peak,” she says. The way Edith takes in this otherworldly occurrence, and those that follow, sets her apart from everyone else in the film. Wherein others flee from or lock away the ghosts of their past, she learns how to wear them on her sleeves – reaching out to the dead multiple times in the story, each attempt more confident than the last. Not too dissimilar from what Del Toro was playing with before, Jaeger pilots confronting past trauma in their quest to defeat Kaiju. At the same time, the transformation that occurs in Crimson Peak when neglected demons consume you from the inside – humans becoming the true monsters of their supernatural tales – would only be amplified in Del Toro’s next film.

Every minute detail coincides with this strategized, therapeutic use of horror. And to the everyday moviegoer trained by common tropes, Crimson Peak is quite deceptive. Just like Mother Ghost at the beginning of the film, the red spirits never manifest with the intent to cause physical harm, but instead to give messages and guide. Red clay seeps down the walls and the mansion ‘breathes’ as the country winds burst in. The house feels alive in the most cinematic sense possible, but the case as to it being ‘horrifying’ is not so black and white. Expertly designed to every inch, there is plenty of beauty to be found in the manor. Much of it has just been corrupted by a debauched affair – keeping this story rooted as a Gothic Romance. Subversion has always been the name of Del Toro’s game, and it’s within Crimson Peak that he uses it to mix genre so well while still staying true to his vision.

Though Crimson Peak saw Del Toro take subversion to a new level, notably with his main character. This film is a key chapter in his overarching legacy; not the first of his works to be lead by a defiant woman, but the first to have the female hero entangled in an unabashed love story. Effortlessly played by the brilliant Mia Wasikowska, the not so damsel in distress at the center of Crimson Peak is one of the most significant characters of Del Toro’s career. In discussing Gothic Romance with The Mary Sue in 2015, Del Toro explains: “This is quintessentially a female genre, that was written with characters that were very complex, very strong. I wanted to make a movie in which to some degree I recuperated and, maybe if possible, enhanced all that.” And enhanced he did for every central male character acts in more distress than Edith ever does, even when she is literally at the edge of death. A more than welcome change of pace that makes for a more resonating film.

Edith’s willingness to tackle the unknown is captivating and her vigor inspiring. But she isn’t absolved of frailty. For someone who comes to terms with facing the dead, her sheer vulnerability to heartbreak and suffering brings great humanity to the role. Hardly recognized, but Edith is one of Del Toro’s most self-reflective protagonists. A marginalized writer, inspired by the great Mary Shelley no less, in the midst of drafting her magnum opus, she immediately faces backlash from her novel’s inclusion of the paranormal. “It’s not [a ghost story]. It’s more a story with a ghost in it. The ghost is just a metaphor… for the past,” she says – giving Crimson Peak a rare Del Toro tongue-in-cheek quality that he utilizes until the credits roll. Meta enough given that the crimson ghosts Edith later encounters are, in fact, echoes of the past, but when looking back on the public’s initial perception of the film, it creates a charming, albeit ironic, wit only found here.

One of the Crimson Peak red ghosts opens its ghastly mouth with its upper face missing.
One of the many clay-red ghosts of ‘Crimson Peak’ courtesy of Universal

Additionally, when tracing back to Crimson Peak‘s pre-production days, you’ll find something even more profound. Penned by Del Toro and an old collaborator, screenwriter Matthew Robbins; this was the first script completed after the release of Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006. The two first worked together an entire decade earlier on Mimic, which has now gone down as the only film Del Toro has truly lost to studio interference. Del Toro was supposed to direct Crimson Peak in the late 2000s, but along came Hellboy II and his involvement in launching The Hobbit (another R.I.P). Through this hectic time, Del Toro would reunite with Robbins in writing 2010’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, directed by Troy Nixey. However, the two also spent time together writing something else: an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

For those unfamiliar, At the Mountains of Madness is by far one of, if not, the most tragic of this filmmaker’s unrealized projects. After spending years trying to get this dream off the ground, Del Toro had the following to say to Empire in 2010: “It doesn’t look like I can do it. It’s very difficult for the studios to take the step of doing a period-set, R-rated, tentpole movie with a tough ending and no love story.” The payoff of Crimson Peak being a period-set, R-rated, tentpole film only 5 years after that statement couldn’t be sweeter. In the film, Edith is told to insert a love story for the better of her novel. Del Toro is obviously commenting on expectations tied to gender here, but you can’t help but wonder if he’s also referring to one of the biggest thorns in his own writing career – one that also ties back to writing partner Matthew Robbins.

When faced with the question, Del Toro has consistently said that all of his films carry an inherent Mexican touch just from the utter fact that they come from him, and Crimson Peak is no different. Whether if deriving from his personal experiences with tackling genre, both on and off paper, or from actual events tied to his life – Del Toro reimagines two separate ghostly encounters experienced by him and his mother through Edith – this film beams with the very essence of Del Toro’s soul. Perhaps most personified when the marginalized writer gets bloody and fights back with nothing but her pen, a visual that cements this as an important stepping stone in his career. It’s a fascinating through-line, connecting to very different segments of his canon while still defining a clear path. The mending of our wounds and subversion of gender roles is continued from Pacific Rim, while setting a bold new course for delving into unfiltered, mature romance in The Shape of Water.

This is only a fraction of what makes Crimson Peak quintessential Guillermo Del Toro. Gothic Romance has long been part of this auteur’s framework, and you would be remiss not to indulge in all of its glorious melodrama. Even if it isn’t your cup of tea, Del Toro will make it so. Reaching its 5-year anniversary, the film hits stronger than before. The intricate motifs, compelling use of practical effects (complete with the involvement of Del Toro veteran Doug Jones), and cathartic use of horror make for something that has yet to be replicated by a major studio. Its lacking box office performance suggests that maybe the world merely wasn’t ready for this masterwork? But just like its characters, we hold the power to define what comes next. Del Toro himself has previously ranked Crimson Peak as one of the 3 best films he’s ever made, and straight-up called it the most beautiful. Take his word and dive in no strings attached, because who knows when we’ll get another large scale, unapologetic Gothic Romance with this much grandeur.

Crimson Peak is currently streaming through Hulu and Amazon!

Follow managing editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626

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1 comment

Cyndi Fox October 18, 2020 - 7:30 pm

I heartily agree, Andrew, that it is his most beautiful and finely-detailed film. I’ve watched Crimson Peak multiple times and have read a great deal about design and construction of the house and costumes. The amount of symbolism he included in everything from the costumes to the interior design of the house and all its furnishings, etc. was enormous and thoroughly merited Del Toro’s book about the story and the film, that he published after the release of the film.

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