Credit: Kerry Hayes/Courtesy Everett Collection
  • Movie

Tom Hiddleston had come directly from the stage at London’s Donmar Warehouse where he’d been starring in a production of Coriolanus when he walked into Allderale Hall and found himself overwhelmed by the decaying grandeur of the mansion at the top of Crimson Peak. “I think the first time I walked in there were already leaves falling through the ceiling, and if you stepped on a particular floor board, this red clay would seep and ooze out from underneath,” the actor recalls. “It was like magic, truly.”

It’s a dark kind of magic at work in the new, old-school Gothic romance from visionary Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo Del Toro, which arrives in theaters Friday. Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska as aspiring novelist Edith Cushing, who, after falling for Hiddleston’s brooding aristocrat Thomas Sharpe, leaves turn-of-the-century New York for the far spookier climes of his ancestral home in the north of England. Before long, Edith encounters ghosts of the past, though it’s the very present tense threat posed by her sister-in-law Lucille (Jessica Chastain) that poses the greatest danger. Wandering the haunted halls of the crumbling manse, Edith increasingly suspects that the siblings are harboring some disturbing secrets that could lead to her own demise.

Although some early reviews have lamented that the film doesn’t conjure quite enough scares, critics have been universally wowed by the elaborate design of the Allerdale Hall, which, in the film, sits atop deposits of remote red clay mines on an otherwise barren field in the North of England. Del Toro took pains to construct the interior of the house in exacting detail in a Toronto soundstage, fashioning a multi-level set, complete with a working elevator, that would anchor the Gothic fantasy with real-world visual detail. (“The house is a rotting representation of the family that has inhabited it — it’s like a cage, a killing jar that you use to kill butterflies,” the director told EW earlier this year. “The house basically is a sinister, sinister trap.”)

For the actors, the ability to perform in such a lavishly decorated space helped inform their performances. “It offers immediate access to Guillermo’s imagination — he’s made manifest something that’s existed in his dreams,” Hiddleston says. “It helps me as an actor sync up with the tone of what he’s thinking about. Thomas Sharpe is so connected to that house, that’s his inheritance in every respect. It’s his physical inheritance, it’s his emotional and psychological inheritance, it is the thing that is weighing him down and stopping him from escaping into his own future and his own autonomy. That was such a key to playing the character — he existed in tension between his past and his future.”

“Guillermo gives all of his actors very, very thorough biographies,” the actor continues. “He includes a personal and closely kept secret that neither the character nor the actor should tell anyone else. Thomas Sharpe’s secret was to leave Allerdale Hall, the sooner the better. As soon as I walked into the place, this crumbling mansion with fear etched into the wallpaper, the word spelled out — FEAR — it immediately inspires me.”

Hiddleston has built a screen career (and an ardent fan following) in large part playing emotionally cool, potentially dangerous men — from trickster god Loki in Marvel’s Thor films and The Avengers to the vampiric musician Adam in Jim Jarmusch’s 2014 chamber piece, Only Lovers Left Alive. And in that respect, his Crimson Peak role very much feels of a piece with some of the actor’s earlier work, though he came to the film after Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch, dropped out of the production: “Thomas Sharpe is dashing and mysterious — I suppose you’re not quite sure about him,” Hiddleston says. “There is an elegant mystery to him in the first half of the film and very quickly you realize there’s more to it.”

The more, as it happens, centers around his unusually close relationship to his sister, a dangerous spirit damaged by a childhood spent in a derelict corner of the world (Lucille, Del Toro said, was modeled after Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s black-and-white thriller Rebecca). “Jessica had a dialect coach, a brilliant woman called Joan Washington,” Hiddleston says. “In our very early discussions of that relationship, Joan was present. Guillermo and Jessica flew to London, and we spent a whole weekend sitting around a table talking. Joan quoted Josephine Hart, and it was the most extraordinary summary phrase for those two: Damaged people are dangerous because they know how to survive. We all burst out laughing. Their relationship is so sad and so tragic, but that’s the emotional engine for Guillermo — the horror can be romantic and the romance can be horrific. For Guillermo, the truth inside the horror is beautiful in its ugliness.”

Hiddleston draws a line of comparison between Crimson Peak and Del Toro’s superb period ghost story, The Devil’s Backbone, which takes place at a boys’ boarding school late in the Spanish Civil War. “Guillermo’s explanation of the supernatural is made very clear in[that film],” Hiddleston says. “He says, ‘What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again, an instant of pain, something dead which seems to be alive.’ I remember it really struck me. There’s a twin line in Crimson, which is Lucille’s, which is, ‘The horror was for love, love makes monsters of us all.’

Crimson Peak, he says, is as much about “the explained supernatural — in which the supernatural intrusions are traced back to previous trauma — but it’s also about love. Everyone wants a kind of love from the other that they can’t return. It’s an interesting inverted love story. I hope people connect to it once the nights draw in and summer is over and there are coats raised against the chill, I hope that it will appeal to that aspect of the imagination.”

Crimson Peak
2015 movie
  • Movie
  • R
  • 119 minutes
  • Guillermo del Toro