Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minute
by Jericho Cerrona
Like an unwieldy, rumbling beast; spitting blood, snow, and nightmarish ghouls, Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak is at it's heart, a full-bodied gothic romance. Sure, it features a creaky old house, wraiths stalking candelabra-lit hallways, and moments of grotesque violence, but Del Toro's occupation with 1940s Old Hollywood aesthetics means that his creation is first and foremost an exercise in knowing pastiche. For many, this tone of homage; including nods to Jane Eyre, Arthur Conan Doyle, Frankenstein, Hitchcock, The Shining, Mario Bava, Edgar Allen Poe, and even self-reflective winks to his own 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth, will be confusing for audiences expecting an outright horror vehicle. Instead, what Del Toro is doing here is slyly audacious. Placing himself within the confines of Victorian-era melodrama and unabashed romanticism means that modern audiences (especially horror fans) will likely be put off by the clear lack of scares, while those spotting the various references may in fact take the film less seriously than they should. Not that Crimson Peak should be taken seriously per se; but Del Toro's implementation of the supernatural elements and horror-esque imagery is actually a bold thematic choice, registering as stark heartbeats for the emotional pathology of his characters rather than as cheap shock tactics. In a way, this is a film in which the style becomes the substance; overwhelming the viewer with it's sweeping throwback grandeur and visual imagination. It's the kind of film rarely made anymore; big, bold, ravishing, and unafraid to look completely preposterous.
To that last point, Del Toro definitely favors the sensory experience over conventional narrative logic. There's a gorgeously macabre attention to detail in the immaculately designed sets, but at no point do we believe any of this could have taken place in reality. Del Toro is a conjurer of worlds glimpsed in bits and pieces as if locked inside a waking dream. The astonishing art direction from Brandt Gordon and Kate Hawley's stunning costume designs are integrated seamlessly with the filmmaker's preoccupation with ghosts as a metaphor for past trauma. The frights here are therefore firmly rooted in ancient ideas of the spirit world as a harbinger of guilt, shame, loss, and diaphanous secrets buried within the ramshackle walls of a house which can no longer can contain them. As a technicolor exploration of how a certain milieu can literally and metaphorically swallow it's inhabitants whole, Crimson Peak is bold studio filmmaking of the highest order. As a more conventional period romance where Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) falls for the dashing English stranger Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) while his mysterious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) looks on disapprovingly, the film is certainly as creaky as the sprawling estate home where the second half takes place. Still, the illogical nature of the script (which many will see as a huge problem) is emblematic of Del Toro's belief that reality as we know it, with all of it's pre-set rules of behavior (which includes character motivations and coddling to believability) is fundamentally boring. What he's after here is something closer to dream logic; which is often comforting, but can just as easily morph into something terrifying and cruel. This doesn't necessarily make Crimson Peak dramatically compelling or the stuff of waking nightmares, but it does follow the idea that Del Toro doesn't really want to escape reality, but rather, define the sadness and misery of history through the prism of fantasy.
The film's first half centers on Wasikowska's wealthy heiress being wooed by Hiddleston's enigmatic stranger, which predictably, draws the ire of her over-protective father (a fine Jim Beaver). Thomas seeks financing from the elder Cushing in order to support his experimental mining equipment, but both he and his stoic older sister are definitely fish out of water. A sequence where Thomas and Edith dance a waltz in front of a stunned crowd revels in it's traditional colliding of two opposing worlds, with Del Toro's camera spinning around the two dancers in a beautiful swirl of stifled emotions left loose. Once the action moves to the Sharpe family home, the strictures of high society and romantic courtship fall away completely, allowing Del Toro to go full tilt with his genre-shifting preoccupations. Meanwhile, the estate is a complete triumph of design and architecture; with it's open ceiling letting in the snow and decaying red clay seeping through the flimsy walls. As the roving camera tracks Edith wandering the hallways and corridors, we sense a world gasping, wheezing, and literally sinking into the bowels of the earth. The house's ghosts, which appear to Edith as she's sleeping, or in one effectively creepy scene, inside a bathtub, are also an extension of the environment's overwhelming rot. Everything here reeks of decay; the walls literally oozing red goo as if bleeding internally, and the apparitions (visualized through CGI hologram-type effects) stalking Edith as if to remind her that death is an eventuality forcing one out of dreamy romanticism and into the realm of true adulthood.
As Crimson Peak ratchets up to levels of near ecstatic melodrama and operatic violence in the third act, Del Toro could very well be accused of going too far, of tipping into outright camp without a justifiable reason for it. But here again, this is a reductive reading of a film which is a maximalist vision in the purest sense of the word from the outset. There are no half-measures or need for subtlety here, and the torrents of nonsensical information which come late in the proceedings only heightens and exacerbates Edith's unwavering belief that despite all evidence to the contrary, the love between herself and Thomas will endure. Additionally, Del Toro wisely doesn't end his film (spoilers) with the gates of hell opening up to unleash hordes of CGI-enhanced monsters, but instead with a showdown between blood-soaked human beings pushed to the breaking point. This means that Crimson Peak, despite it's lavish production values and eye-popping visual flights of fancy, is actually a film more interested in the notion that the most disturbing ghosts are the ones who reveal themselves under the guise of capitalist-leaning, aristocratic niceties.