Guillermo del Toro films evoke painting, sculpture, literature and fairy tales in equal measure, crafting a kind of otherworldly magic that's for some intoxicating, for others a confusing jumble of imagery and quirks. From blockbusters Hellboy and Pacific Rim to art films Chronos and Pan's Labyrinth, his works are undeniably evocative, if narratively opaque for some.
Crimson Peak lies somewhere between his mainstream epics and his more personal, often metaphysical Spanish-language works. It's a film with charms aplenty, but told with a tone that may be unfamiliar to contemporary audiences. Bluntly, a bit of homework will help contextualize the echoes that del Toro is calling throughout.
The Mexican director is certainly aware of the dangers of audience expectations. "If you go to Crimson Peak wanting a pure horror movie, you will feel completely shattered because it doesn't work as one," he said in an interview with The Globe. "If you go wishing for a pure Jane Austen-style romantic movie then you're going to resent the violence, the darkness. But if and when we can educate ourselves in the little quirks of Gothic romance, we will enjoy the movie more."
It's this 19th-century literary form that's the thumping, bloody heart of Crimson Peak, and its appeal for del Toro is obvious. "Horror, fantasy and genre fiction always ended up branching out to more interesting and very deep venues of literature, and the same is with film," he says. The Gothic-romance form allows many of these facets to co-exist, allowing for further complexity.
It's easy to misjudge from Crimson Peak's trailers or the Halloween-timed release that it's a simple haunted-house film. Yet the intention is quite different. "That's why I can playfully do an image from The Shining like the bathtub," admits the director. "The Shining is not a Gothic romance, but instead one of the purest haunted-house movies." The difference is plain: In a haunted-house story, "the edifice itself has a will and is malignant." Or, as Stephen King once put it, "Bad places attract bad people."
In contrast, says del Toro, "in a Gothic romance the edifice is linked to the story as a holder of secrets, often linked to the antagonist." Other common genre elements include "a journey of an innocent heroine, through the love of a dark, brooding gentleman into a building that holds dark secrets about the past. These beats – very fetishistic objects, passages, keys, secret rooms, keyholes, secret doorways, rain, fog, the elements, the geography – all feed on the Gothic to make it have its own romantic flavour."
A key line of the film occurs when the innocent character Edith (played by Mia Wasikowska) details the book that she's writing, describing it as "not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts." As del Toro explains, "The role of the ghosts in this movie do not go the easy route of being just malignant or demonic." Instead, the film is "using them to texture the storytelling," much as the director did with 2001's The Devil's Backbone.
This texture includes highly personal flourishes for del Toro, starting from the opening scene showing a spirit haunting young Edith, "which is something that my mother experienced as a child and told me when I was a child. She was visited by the ghost of her grandmother in bed the day of her funeral." This collision between the spiritual, the horrific and the carnal is at the core of the film's tonality, or as del Toro says, it's "about love and the way I perceive love to be – the most redeeming force in the world enacted by the most imperfect people in the world, which is all of us."
Do you need to know all these literary forebears to appreciate Crimson Peak? Del Toro doesn't think so. "When I opened my first book I didn't need to know anything about it ahead of time. If you have an affinity for the flavour that I'm giving you, which is kind of a pistachio with caviar and cheese – it's going to be a very strange flavour."
Del Toro believes that "an audience exposed to Crimson Peak without any education, if they have an affinity for the world, they'll go for it. And if they don't, no matter, I can put them through a month of school, and they won't like it."
Del Toro isn't worried that audiences will not immediately respond to these deeply researched allusions, though. "You can only make films and expect them to find an audience that loves them passionately, whether it's 1,000 people or a million people, or 10 million people."