In neo Gothic romance Crimson Peak, heroine has sex and survives

Women are portrayed as strong and beautiful in Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak

In Gothic romances, female characters are often weak and in need of rescuing, with the added bonus that terrible things seem to befall them if they are less than chaste.

Acclaimed writer-director Guillermo del Toro wanted to reverse this and other tropes in his new film, Crimson Peak, a ghostly 19th-century romance starring Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain. The result is a Gothic tale with a feminist twist.

"I very much wanted the heroine to be able to have sex and survive and be able to fend for herself," says the Mexican director, who was behind Pacific Rim, the 2013 science-fiction blockbuster, and the film adaptations of the Hellboy and Blade comic books.

In Crimson Peak, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, he tackles something different by taking on the Gothic romance, which, in film, has been a long-dormant genre.

"Gothic romance is usually a female-centric genre, but most of the time, it's tackled with the heroine as weak and pure," the director tells Life at a press event in New York.

In Mexico, you can be having dinner and someone can say, 'I saw a ghost' and people are like, 'Really? Pass the rice' and they will continue having dinner.

WRITER-DIRECTOR GUILLERMO DEL TORO, whose new film, Crimson Peak, is a ghostly 19th-century romance starring Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston

However, the ending of del Toro's version - which sees an heiress named Edith (Wasikowska) being swept off her feet by the dashing Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), only to discover that he and his sister Lucille (Chastain) are not what they seem - will change all that.

"I wanted to end the movie in the opposite way to how Gothic romances end - and Gothic romance for most people now is Fabio carrying a girl in his arms against the background of a mansion on a cliff.

"I wanted to make sure that love didn't become the only engine for her and that she was able to be strong and beautiful at the same time, which usually are two things that don't go together in these stories.

"Most of the time, if you want the woman to survive in the movie, they become masculinised. I wanted her to be a strong woman and I wanted her to be able to say the lines that are usually spoken by a man.

"I just thought it would be nice to turn certain aspects of the Gothic romance on their head."

Del Toro - whose action and comic book-style films have earned him a large fanboy following - realises that this role reversal may not go down well with some male moviegoers, whom he says may have trouble accepting the woman as the hero.

"It's a little harder for male audiences, certainly, to accept a movie in this genre on those terms. "It will be harder for a male audience to understand that the male characters in the movie are basically either manipulative or useless. It's something I wanted to do intentionally," says the director, whose Spanish-language films Cronos (1993) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006) introduced the dark baroque fantasies and elaborate monsters that have become his trademark.

Del Toro, 51, who married his high school sweetheart Lorenza, says he is "drawn to strong female characters". The couple have two daughters, Mariana, 18, and Marisa, 13.

Pointing to Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) as one of the best examples of a Gothic romance, he explains that this genre - which, in literature, is exemplified by novels such as Wuthering Heights (1847), Jane Eyre (1847) and Frankenstein (1818) - is not to be confused with horror.

"It's a cagey genre, it's not horror. In Victorian times, they used to call it a 'pleasing terror' because it's a mixture of love and death."

Crimson Peak will blur the genre boundaries, too. "The horror fans may go, 'Oh, there's not enough violence or horror.' And people who love When Harry Met Sally or You've Got Mail will say there's not enough romance because there's so much darkness.

"But I think the essence of Gothic romance - and what's great about it - is that love can come out of pain or it can come out of accepting what monstrous people we can be."

Del Toro, who is known for cramming his films with cinematic, literary and pop cultural references, is also keen to explore the idea of ghosts and what they represent.

The first ghost Edith encounters in the movie was a re-creation of a story that happened to his mother after her grandmother died.

"As a child, my mother was sleeping in her bed when she heard her grandmother walking and smelled her perfume. She sat on the bed and my mother heard the bed springs creak and felt her lean against her back."

All the apparitions in the movie are mothers. "I wanted to have horrible mothers as ghosts," he says, chuckling. "I don't know why - maybe it's because I'm Mexican and mothers in Mexico are haunting figures and figures of love."

Unlike other directors, del Toro says he will never tease the audience with doubts about whether the spirits and monsters in his movies are real.

"I never make a big deal of it - I open this movie saying ghosts are real and, after three minutes, I show you the ghosts. It's the same with my monsters. I never go, 'Hmm, is that a monster?' It's like, 'Yeah, it's real.'"

It is because he grew up firmly believing that otherworldly spirits exist. He says he has had two ghost encounters in his life. His nanny used to tell him ghost stories and his mother has seen many ghosts.

"In Mexico, you can be having dinner and someone can say, 'I saw a ghost' and people are like, 'Really? Pass the rice' and they will continue having dinner."

Ghosts are also meant as a metaphor for the things that weigh people down and exploring this notion was the main reason del Toro wanted to create a Gothic romance.

"Henry James says ghosts are the past that anchors us down and doesn't allow us to move into the future," he says, referring to the author of the 1898 Gothic ghost story, The Turn Of The Screw.

That idea "has been in my head for many many years", del Toro explains. With Crimson Peak, he fulfils a long-held dream of creating a "lush and lavish" version of that idea.

"It's almost an old-fashioned, grand Hollywood production in a genre that usually doesn't get that treatment. I think it's something unique and beautiful for me to celebrate."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2015, with the headline 'Reinventing the Gothic romance'. Print Edition | Subscribe