Monster movie-maker Guillermo del Toro has conjured up demonic superheroes, fantastical fawns, colossal robots and even larger Kaijus, but his latest Frankenstein creation is not only an unnervingly lovely beast but also the set of his film. Possibly the most elaborate monster Del Toro has ever constructed is the labyrinth-like Gothic mansion in "Crimson Peak," opening Thursday.
Perched atop a red clay mine in a remote English hillside, the derelict manor is an ideal representation of Del Toro's ability to meld the grotesque and the beautiful, the alluring and the dangerous. Allerdale Hall is a grand monster with an impressive foyer that opens wide, revealing archways lined with rows of jagged teeth carved from wooden beams.
"Visually, I wanted a house that you could enter and get a sense of the whole house in a single shot," Del Toro said over the phone. "You immediately know the geography of the house. You immediately know the library's in the front, the kitchen is on the right, the bedroom is on the left. We needed to make it geographically very clear so that you are never lost in a movie set. You feel that you're in a real place. That you know where things are."
The practical three-story mansion set was erected in Pinewood Toronto Studios in Canada. It wasn't a fractured set, as much of the building was connected. And functional. The vintage-looking elevator that ran from the first floor to the top was fully operational, as were the fireplaces. In fact, the only part of the Allerdale Hall that was green-screened was "just the hole in the ceiling," Del Toro joked. "We have no sky."
And from that sky-less crack snow and leaves would fall.
"I needed to have something that was practically very difficult to repair," the director explained. "It's not easy to repair a hole like that. It really requires huge amounts of workers. It was very symbolic for me to have these aristocrats with a 90-year-old servant, a single servant, to have a mansion that has a hole on the top. It just tells you how down on their luck they are. How they may appear to be civilized and poised, but they are really rotting away."
The crumbling remains and the leaking ceiling became the physical representation of the time Del Toro set his Gothic horror story in.
"The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century defined who we are now," he said. "It is the transition from the old world values to the modern world. That's why I wanted to set 'Crimson Peak' on this edge."
Stuck between the two worlds are the inhabitants of Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe siblings: Jessica Chastain, who plays Lady Lucille Sharpe, and Tom Hiddleston as Sir Thomas Sharpe. Determined not to go destitute, the pair finds a bride for Sir Thomas, the golden Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a character who radiates light in the darkness of their home.
"[It's] a very dark, fairy-tale world, this crumbling mansion with two people that were raised in an attic by themselves, that, in fact, they're wearing their parents' clothes. All they know is that world," Del Toro said. "They prey on people, and they come back to the house, almost like sand trap spiders."
And while the Sharpe sibling end game is highly suspect, the beauty of their rotten world is what attracts both the audience and the heroine, Edith, into this gorgeous trap.
"A lot of people refer to Gothic romance as a pleasing terror, a pleasing terror that reminds you that, behind all the modernity, at the same time lies death," Del Toro said. "Gothic romance is characterized by being basically graveyard poetry. It's a genre that is very cagey because it's not entirely romantic and it's not entirely a horror genre. It's a creature in between. It's the clash between love and death."
Even the props were created to be an enticing illusion. The same pieces of furniture were built in two sizes. An oversized piece of furniture would be swapped in to make a character sitting in it look weak, while the smaller version would make a character look strong.
The character Lucille (Chastain) "is actually part of the house. Her wardrobe has pieces of architecture of the house embroidered in lace," Del Toro said. "We very deliberately made her the same color as the walls. The walls are the same color as her eyes. We wanted to make them have the color of the house. In blacks and cyans."
And it doesn't stop there. The wallpaper, a design of butterfly wings and moth, has the coded word "fear" hidden within the pattern. Everything inside Allerdale Hall has been beautifully constructed to be terrifying. It is references stacked on references.
The director himself professes that he "tries to treat the movies like an artifact. I try to treat them like a cabinet of curiosities," and each nook and corner of the house or dialog from the film is laced with a reference.
On entering the home in the film, Edith asks Sir Thomas how many rooms are inside this home.
He responds with a smile saying, "I have no idea, would you like to count them?"
That line is actually a reference to a classic Gothic romance called "Dragonwyck" with Vincent Price. It's as if Del Toro collected every Gothic horror or romance treasure that inspired him and delicately pinned it to his movie, like an insect under glass.
"The reality is," the director said, that "my secret hope is that people that do like what I do, that they end up watching the movie more than once. The beauty is even my family, my kids and my wife when they watch the movies for a second or third time, they say, 'Oh, we didn't notice this' or, 'We didn't notice that.' The movie is a minefield of details."