Spoilers for Crimson Peak follow!
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 another personal passion project in Nightmare Alley and heading into finally releasing his stop motion Pinocchio film from the pits of development hell, 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 The Shape of Water, Del Toro’s works prior to the 2010s are what generally buzz conversations of his genius. These films did, after all, skyrocket his name to fame. Del Toro’s titles from the last decade, however, are just as crucial to his canon. One, in particular, deserves to be looked at more extensively, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak.
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. This is far from the truth.
Each Guillermo 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 all these 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 Oscars. 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.
You can trace Crimson Peak‘s short-lived spotlight back to its marketing. The timely October 2015 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 sinking in red clay – the very source of Sharpe’s wealth. It’s here that 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 estate’s dark secrets. Untamed lust, envy, and greed run throughout the mansion halls, 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. The Gothic elements call back classic tales like 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 goddamn 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. Avid fans will 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, instead represents endless bloodshed here; a motif that would suggest Crimson Peak is equally a horror film as it is a love story. Regardless of what was initially marketed to audiences in 2015, this is a Gothic Romance from start to finish. Del Toro made this distinction clear to the studio from the get-go and repeatedly draws the line whenever given the chance. Even so, 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, yet 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.
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 in Pacific Rim: 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, The Shape of Water.
Every small detail coincides with this therapeutic use of horror. And to the everyday moviegoer trained by common tropes, Crimson Peak is quite deceptive. Just like Mother Ghost, the red spirits in the manor never manifest to cause physical harm. They instead give messages and guidance. Red clay seeps down the walls and the mansion “breathes” as the country winds burst in. The house feels alive in the most cinematic way possible, but the case of it being horrifying is not so black and white. Expertly designed to every inch, there is plenty of beauty to be found in the mansion. Much of it has just been corrupted by a debauched affair – keeping this story rooted in Gothic Romance. Subversion has always been the name of Guillermo del Toro’s game, and it’s within Crimson Peak that he uses it to form a perfect genre blend.
Crimson Peak saw Del Toro take subversion to a new level, though, notably with his main character. This may not be the first of his works to be led by a defiant woman, but it’s the first to have the female hero entangled in an unabashed love story. Effortlessly played by Mia Wasikowska, the not-so-damsel in distress at the center of Crimson Peak is one of the most significant characters of Guillermo 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 male character acts more in distress than Edith ever does, even when she’s literally at the edge of death.
Edith’s willingness to tackle the unknown is incredibly inspiring. She isn’t absolved of frailty either. For someone who comes to terms with facing the dead, her sheer vulnerability brings great humanity to the role. Furthermore, Edith is actually 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 of a story with a ghost in it. The ghost is just a metaphor… for the past,” she says. This gives Crimson Peak a rare Del Toro tongue-in-cheek quality. Meta enough given 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.
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. Guillermo 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 sad loss). 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 the most tragic of this filmmaker’s unrealized projects. After years of trying to turn this dream into reality, Del Toro revealed the following 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 clearly commenting on expectations tied to gender here, but you can’t help to 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.
Guillermo 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 deriving from his personal experiences with tackling genre 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 his soul. Perhaps most personified when the marginalized writer in Edith 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 two very different segments of his canon. 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. The film hits stronger now than ever before. The intricate motifs, compelling use of practical effects (including 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. The poor box office suggests that maybe the world simply 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 his 3 best films. Take his word and dive in no strings attached, because who knows when we’ll get another big-budget, unapologetic Gothic Romance with this much grandeur.