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Crimson Peak: del Toro's love letter to the classics of gothic horror

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 6:04 IST

Guillermo del Toro has been making dark, unsettling movies for decades, from the low-budget horror flick Cronos and The Devil's Backbone to the Oscar-winning fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim.

And dark and unsettling is exactly what his new film Crimson Peak is.

Which just underlines the fact that this is not a horror film, but one which is just plain creepy while faithfully paying homage to Gothic romance films from the 1960s.

Set in the 19th century, the film revolves around a young American woman called Edith (Mia Wasikowska) who marries a mysterious Brit, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and moves to his imposing mansion in the English countryside - Allerdale Hall - a house that is slowly sinking into the ooze that stains the snow-capped hills scarlet, leading locals to bestow it with the nickname 'Crimson Peak'.

Allerdale Hall is the essence of Victorian decadence in disrepair, groaning and breathing as it sinks into the blood-red clay oozing through rotted floorboards.

And naturally, things are not what they seem: the house is haunted and everybody has secrets, particularly Edith's disturbing new sister-in-law Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

crimson peak jessica chastain

But in a blow to his young bride, it's obvious from the first few furtive glances exchanged between Thomas and Lucille that they're closer than siblings, with nefarious plans underfoot.

It's a haunted house flick that actually bucks with the minimalist trend of recent spooky movies. Even so, the whole time you're watching Crimson Peak, you won't miss the psychological isolation terror of The Babadook or the minimalist masterpiece of It Follows, clearly two of the best horror films in recent years.

Despite this praise, there are many cliched moments and the film frequently sets aside the supernatural story line to focus more on the psychopaths in the story. You'd be forgiven if you thought this was going to become a ghost story full of raging spirits, especially if you've seen the trailer.

And to be sure, wispy, smoke-like apparitions do regularly rise through the floor and float through the halls, terrorising Edith. But they aren't the only terrors in the house.

The crazies

That Chastain had fun playing a psychopathic Lady Macbeth-like character is evident from the way she developed the character's insanity in every scene she was in.

Hiddleston is perfectly cast as the suave yet tortured seducer. Viewers are no strangers to Hiddleston's dark side; it was by playing the evil god Loki that he became a household name. Here, he's as dashing as ever.

Wasikowska captures the naivete and resilience of her independent woman, one who only fully understands the despicable ulterior motives of her new family when it is too late.

But even though Wasikowska pulls of some fine work as a heroine who starts off as plucky to only end up as tortured, it's the house itself that elicits far more mental screams from viewers.

crimson peak 1

The mansion is like a living, breathing entity. With its groans and creaks, it shifts emotionally; altering and manipulating.

In an interview with The Wrap, del Toro himself said: "The house is a creature. The house is a monster. That's the key to the movie, in a way, because the real monsters in the movie are not Lucille and Tom. It's the family that built that house - that arrogant spirit, the horrible mother, the absent father. Those are the real monsters.

The visualisation

Del Toro actually had Allerdale Hall built from scrap - from cellar to top floor, elevators and all. It took seven months to create a model on paper and then another six months to build.

There's a Penny Dreadful aesthetic to the entire set, replete with gorgeous period costumes, candelabras, scattered cobwebs and wallowing darkness.

Perhaps the most surprising visual asset is that del Toro's undead spirits have a vibrant, blood-red tint to their colour pallet. The influence came from an obscure short story by ghost master MR James - an unfinished vignette that was found among James' papers after he died.

In the short piece, del Toro says James "described a ghost with features which while seemingly human were of a bright pink colour. That struck me very strongly".

It's been a decade in the making

A self-titled perfectionist, del Toro has been working on his forthcoming title since 2006. He and co-writer Matthew Robbins penned the original spec script just days after the release of Pan's Labyrinth; his ethereal, nightmarish masterwork.

Believing he would be getting ready to progress forward with the film, the studio suggested he prepare Hellboy II: The Golden Army first. Following that film, much creative involvement with The Hobbit saga and numerous production roles later, Crimson Peak was finally recovered after the Mexican built a solid rapport with Legendary Pictures.

So go ahead; venture into the shadowy halls of Allerdale Hall, open the creaking doors and immerse yourself in the devilish delights of this film.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5

First published: 16 October 2015, 4:28 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.