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Crimson Peak
Still from "Crimson Peak"Courtesy of Universal/Legendary

The creepy films that inspired Guillermo Del Toro’s horror

Crimson Peak is a visual achievement – and within it are subtle references to some of the director’s all time favourites

A long time ago, in the underground realm, there lived a boy who dreamed of a fucked up world. Guillermo del Toro grew up to be the sweet, sick saviour of the fantasy genre and a superstar director with complete creative control, yet still a fanboy at heart, raving about movies like a teenager in love.

In Cronos, del Toro’s first film, a vampire licked blood off the men’s room floor to quench a thirst. Since then, he’s stuck to his esoteric roots, from the arthouse scares of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, to bizarre blockbusters like Hellboy and Pacific Rim. His new personal project is Crimson Peak, a haunted house story that’s drop-dead gorgeous and drop-dead creepy. Del Toro’s lifetime of influences and passions bled into the set design. Each frame is clearly fussed over with precision, right down to the delicate colour choices and snow crashing through a hole in the ceiling. For a history lesson in cinema, we hung out with the master to find out the ten films that influenced Crimson Peak.


“Jack Clayton is a filmmaker I love. Whether he’s doing genre or not, his camera style is very rich. His camera style on The Innocents contains some of my favourite shots of all time, including the shot when Deborah Kerr first enters the house. The camera follows her through the foyer and into a room. That shot lasts for about three or four minutes, and it becomes an overhead, a close-up, a master shot. All without cuts.”


“It’s actually one of those gothic romances that’s a little overwrought, initially; then it matches the melodramatic nature of the material. It’s great when you can do melodramatic visuals along with melodramatic storytelling. Jane Eyre has incredible production design. Incredible! It’s one of my favourite production designs ever. The cinematography is remarkable because of its great depth of blacks. On Crimson Peak, I tried to have strong colours contrary to movies of the period. Normally those are desaturated or stale. I wanted rich colours; I tried to create a movie with very strong blacks.”


“Hitchcock’s spirit was tampered with by David O. Selznick, but still he managed to get a strong sexual tension with Mrs Danvers, which is a character that influenced me a lot in visually designing Jessica (Chastain)’s character, Lucille. Almost like a shadow moving very deliberately, very slowly. Many times she’ll just appear there, or you won’t see her leave. The way I introduce Jessica, the back of her red dress is like a spinal column – that’s the way one of those ghosts is made, in red, with the spinal column exposed.”


“For the waltz in Crimson Peak, I studied the party. It’s one of the best party scenes of all time, and probably the longest party scene in the history of film. It’s incredibly elegant and takes so long, with many plot points happening. I humbly tried that too with strands of narrative: I have the romance, the mystery – because the father starts to dislike Lucille and Thomas in that scene – and the jealousy angle from the Charlie Hunnam character. And The Leopard, in a much more majestic, beautiful way, did that.”


“The source of lighting in Barry Lyndon is natural light, using what we call ‘one source light’. That means, if you have a room with a large window, then most of that light comes from the window. Then you do little bounces with that light to create an almost painterly effect. The Shining is very different from the classical movie style of Crimson, but the bath scene is obviously a quote. When we were scouting locations for The Hobbit in New Zealand, we stayed in a hotel that was closed for the season. They opened it just for us. It was 70 people plus me. I read on the internet that the hotel was haunted, so I asked for the haunted room. In the middle of the night, I was watching a DVD. I heard a horrible murder in the bathroom. A woman screaming horribly. Then, a guy crying in the bathroom. I was so scared – and that’s in the movie, when she hears the screams.”


“Mario Bava’s use of colour in that and another movie called Black Sabbath is very saturated, but his camera style is elegant. Bava has this pulpish sense of colour. He has an elegant sense of design and camera work. But the house in Crimson was influenced by real architecture. I wanted the house to bleed and breathe, but more importantly, I wanted to have a house where it’s snowing on the inside. The family had a lot of money at one point. They built this huge entrance to the house, but to repair that roof cost so much money that they couldn’t repair it. To have snow and leaves falling through that opening is a symbol of the arrogance and wealth of their past.”


“I actually quote it in the movie with a little red ball – that comes from Kill Baby, Kill and from The Changeling. They both use a rubber ball as a scary element. It’s a quote from both of them, but at the same time its own thing. The Changeling was a very scary movie, but it was a proper ghost story. Crimson Peak is actually different from a ghost story, and different from a horror film. It’s a gothic romance. It’s more than scary – it’s actually creepy. More than purely romantic, it’s a dark romance fable. For me, the horrors in Crimson Peak are the humans more than the ghosts. Jessica Chastain is scarier than the ghosts.”


“It’s a movie of his I love and study because it’s not the Scorsese of the excess, but the Scorsese of the restraint. Films were very important to me growing up. And many times in my life when I’ve been really, really, really sad, I’d see a good movie, and my life changes. They can be from any genre. It can be The Road Warrior or it can be The Sound of Music. It’s almost like a bath to the soul.”


“Terence Fisher was already great at playing with very controlled camera moves, but he was very lurid in the content. I always think his Dracula and Frankenstein movies are rich in visual design, even when they turn really violent or very erotic in many instances. He keeps his camera style and his design style very, very controlled.”


“The source of Great Expectations, which is the Charles Dickens novel, is very influenced by gothic romance. Dickens has this sort of magical dark atmosphere in that novel that David Lean captures perfectly in the movie. It opens with this amazing shot of the moors, of the north of England. It’s really very haunting. And then it goes into a cemetery. The visuals of the movie are close to a horror movie. Gothic romance is the stepchild of two big things: dark fairytales and gothic horror. Great Expectations is a movie that changed my life, and it’s one of my top 10 movies of all time.”

Crimson Peak is out in cinemas Friday 16 October