Crimson Peak March 17, 2016
I’m pressed to think of a recent horror film as lavish, or as beautifully rendered, as Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak. It brings more to the table than mere terror, though: it is also a gothic romance of the Jane Eyre sort, a psychological thriller with the torments of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and an old-fashioned ghost story with more than a few things in common with Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Visually extravagant and imposingly atmospheric, it is distinctly the work of an auteur — only Del Toro, an underdog of the fantasy film, could have devised such a feature.
The genius behind Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy franchise, he, like the artistically opposite Quentin Tarantino, is the kind of moviemaker who feels like a movie fan. Watch only one of his films and you can smell the alacrity, the dedication put forth toward paying homage to his childhood heroes and toward creating a celluloid vision unremittingly his own. His filmography is uneven in terms of comprehensive success, but unchanging is how personal each one of his works manages to be. Presented are the things that cinematically scare him, thrill him. And he, with a wink, directs with a flair that welcomes the audience into his twisted imagination. Because maybe, just maybe, the characteristics that mean the most to him might have the same effect on us, too.
Crimson Peak is Del Toro’s answer to the aforementioned The Innocents and other horror greats, namely The Haunting and The Shining. Wanting to provide an alternative to the recent accumulation of B-movie, found-footage chillers, the film is very much a nostalgia trip to the days when horror could still be grand and majestic; but Crimson Peak, so optically delicious, is more than just absolute tribute.
Set in the early 1900s, the film stars Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing, an aspiring novelist who dreams to be taken seriously but is held back by her womanhood and by the fact that her father (Jim Beaver) is a wealthy American businessman. Wanting more out of life but trapped in the confines of a society that would rather she look for romance than prosper intellectually, she is taken aback by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a brooding inventor in town to coordinate investors for his latest project. Attracted to his dark lure, she, inexperienced in the trials and tribulations of love, unwisely, and carelessly, falls for him. His sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is as displeased as Edith’s father. If it weren’t for the eventual mysterious death of the latter, then maybe Edith would be kept in the safe world she knows so well.
But with nothing stopping her, she and Thomas wed, prompting a move from America to Sharpe’s England based mansion, Allerdale Hall. Sitting atop a vast red clay mine, the mansion is crumbling and shadowy, a place of ruin where your kept hidden nightmares are closer to reality than ever imagined. A few days into the marriage, though, does Edith begin to realize that much truth has been kept from her — and that the Sharpes, along with Allerdale Hall, bear sinister secrets they’d prefer she not discover.
But while Crimson Peak’s many revelations and plot twists are essential to its melodramatic, chilly opera, it’s the triangularly acidic relationship between its leads that makes the film so enriching. Wasikowska, as gothic as a gothic heroine can possibly be, is made to detect, love, and wander ghoulish, dimly lit hallways during the darkest hours of the night. Hiddleston, the Mr. Rochester to her phantasmic Jane, is a love interest as dashing as he is vaguely threatening. Chastain, reminiscent of the terrifying Mrs. Danvers of Rebecca, is so spine-chillingly intimidating we almost expect her to reveal herself to be the Devil themselves. When dwelling in the same mansion, we’d expect madcap drama of the Dark Shadows sort — the performances, paired with Del Toro and Matthew Robbins’s screenplay, make for sweeping cinematic theater; the overstated emotional content of Crimson Peak is the thing that makes its deadlier aspects so splashily affecting.
Del Toro drenches the scenery in beauteously artificial lighting — yellows, greens, and reds are as prevailing as what you might find in a Mario Bava masterpiece — and peppers the scenery in storybook wonder that makes the film read as more of a nightmare than an escape in realism. Characters are deliberately dressed to reflect their positions in the film (the Sharpes always in black to reinstate their malice, Edith in various bright colors to highlight her virtue) and Del Toro is consistently unafraid to include set pieces placed simply for the aesthetic. Notice the way Allerdale Hall just so happens to sit atop a red clay mine, painting the ground as if it were covered in blood, the way its entrance is distinguished by a crack in the ceiling that finds snow, leaves, tumbling through the home like a waterfall during all hours of the day. Del Toro’s unbreakable filmmaking confidence is infectious; we’re frightened by what the movie has to offer because we get the sense that he was tormented by similar imagery during his own childhood of obsessive movie watching.
Perhaps Crimson Peak is best enjoyed on a stylistic level — those expecting a jagged, disturbing horror movie will certainly be disappointed. It’s a visual feast, and nothing is more pleasing than a confident iconoclast dancing in the joys of self-indulgence and letting us be a part of the journey, too. A