Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston
Guillermo del Toro is a director who is remarkable for his strong artistic vision and for the unbridled passion he displays for the various genres in which he works. His latest film, Crimson Peak, is no exception on either count. A beautifully macabre treat for the eyes, I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched a movie quite so visually sumptuous. It’s also a work that really embraces its genre, although that isn’t perhaps the genre some filmgoers may have been expecting…
Del Toro’s protagonist here is Edith Cushing (played with a winning mix of spirit and naivety by Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring writer living in early 20th Century Buffalo. One of the early scenes in the movie sees Edith excitedly presenting her manuscript to a potential publisher only to have her dreams unequivocally shattered. The aging male publisher was expecting any novel written by a woman to be a gentle romance and is therefore perturbed by the ghostly tale Edith has typed. He rejects her work with barely a glance and advises her to concentrate on themes more suitable for her gender. Of course this sets the scene nicely to showcase one of Del Toro’s strengths: creating active female characters. As Jessica Chastain, who plays Lucille, the film’s other female lead, remarked in a recent interview for Time, the director’s focus on women who are not just there to be looked at is one of the factors that really drew her to work with him. But the scene is also significant for its implied commentary on genre expectation, a focus that feels particularly relevant for Crimson Peak. The initial marketing, trailers and the pre-Hallowe’en release date for this film all seemed strongly to fly its flag as a horror film, yet those expecting the usual procession of jump-scares will be disappointed. The Crimson Peak trailer accurately showcases the film’s stunning costumes and sets but it doesn’t really capture the tone of the film. Yes, there’s a supernatural element and a very creepy atmosphere, but the real focus here is on the mystery surrounding Allerdale Hall and its inhabitants and in this respect the trailer actually gives too much away.
You see, Crimson Peak is not a horror film but a Gothic Romance, in the literary sense of the term. Although relationships and marriage proposals often feature in works of 18th-century Romantic literature, the movement as a whole was far less concerned with boy meets girl than it was with, what Wikipedia calls:
intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature.
Such an artistically-inclined director as Del Toro seems well-placed to craft a film with a strong awareness of these aesthetics and in Crimson Peak he ticks all of these boxes (no doubt boxes of the ornately-crafted wrought-iron variety). As a huge fan of traditional Gothic literature such as Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, I was thrilled to see Del Toro embracing this sumptuously melodramatic genre with just the same passion he brought to the mech vs kaiju playing field in Pacific Rim. That is to say, not really breaking new ground but working with love, care and visual flair within the existing confines of the mold. Now, the Gothic Romance genre itself is not without its flaws. Books like Udolpho focus so strongly on building up an atmosphere of intrigue that, when they come, the final revelations can often seem anti-climatic. There is also a tendency for explanations to be given via lengthy immersion-breaking monologues. Del Toro’s commitment to the genre is such that his film replicates these flaws as well as its many dark delights. There’s even a distinctly uncinematic explanatory monologue – which those not familiar with the quirks of the genre could find off-putting. And while the final quarter certainly delivers on the action, once the secrets of Allerdale are revealed the film never quite recaptures it previous atmosphere of intoxicating tension. This is a properly old-fashioned thriller and it’s a wonderfully rich cinematic experience but I think cinema-goers will get more out of the film if they approach and understand it in its context as Gothic Romance, rather than as a straight up horror movie.
Without, I hope, giving too much away (the trailer does that already) the plot concerns the relationship between Edith Cushing (a moniker that is clearly an affection Hammer horror homage) and the Sharpes, a pair of impoverished British aristocratic siblings who have traveled to the States seeking investment in a new machine Thomas Sharpe has invented to mine the red clay beneath their crumbling ancestral abode, Allerdale Hall. Though Edith’s father rejects Thomas’ pitch, his daughter proves rather more susceptible to the Baronet’s charms. Beautifully composed and rich in stylised period detail, the film’s early scenes clearly establish its credentials as a Gothic Romance with a heavy literary influence. There’s a particularly wonderful exchange in which Edith crushes her female acquaintances’ warning that she’ll die unmarried like Jane Austen, with the retort that she’d much rather be Mary Shelley: “she died a widow.” Yet for all the period staples: lavish balls, dinner parties and parlour gossip, the film’s first quarter establishes a subtly growing air of menace. Yes there’s a ghostly visitation in the opening scene but what I really enjoyed about Crimson Peak is that although it seems to confirm its tag line and Edith’s opening monologue, “ghosts are real,” the danger and horror here is less supernatural in origin than it is human. Del Toro’s love of monsters is well known and it’s a nice touch that the most important supernatural presences in the film are physical performances (by the brilliant Doug Jones) rather than just being the product of CGI. Yet, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, the greatest terror is the human world rather than the fantasy one. Indeed, Pan’s Labyrinth is the Del Toro film with which Crimson Peak feels most closely aligned and Edith’s journey echoes that of the young Ofelia in many ways.
Crimson Peak is big on metaphor and while hardly subtle the motif of the moth to a flame creates some of the film’s most stunning visuals: from the dying butterflies in the park, through Edith and Thomas waltzing with a candle to the metaphor’s own “peak”: the thousands of moths lining the walls of Allerdale Hall. Although it does conform to the Romantic convention of the explanatory monologue, this is a film that does best when it shows rather than tells. Despite some dialogue that veers into clunkiness (a frequent criticism of Del Toro’s movies) the three leads, Wasikowska, Chastain and Hiddleston establish a captivating dynamic here. Chastain is clearly enjoying herself in a role that seems very different for her and which owes so much Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (though more, I feel, to the classic Hitchcock movie than to the classic Du Maurier novel). Meanwhile Hiddleston truly is a master of understatement and the frequent disjuncture between his words and his expressions is one of the film’s most captivating elements.
Yet for all its winning performances, the real star of Crimson Peak is the decaying Allerdale Hall. I love a good haunted house story, and in creating the Sharpe family home Del Toro and his team have let their rich and vivid imaginations run as wild as Cathy and Heathcliff on the moors, creating visuals that haunted me far more persistently than any of the film’s spirits. The Hall is a fabulous Gothic conceit, from it foundations of red clay that seeps through its creaking floorboards like too-slowly congealing blood, along its walls of moth-encrusted damask and strangely elongated Gigeresque corridors, via the clowns, dolls and steampunk contraptions that line its shelves and bookcases, right up to the Hall’s literal and figurative zenith, the hole in the roof that lets in the wind, rain, snow and eerie light with such spectacular effect. Every shot in this film seems to be lit and angled in a way that is just that little bit off-centre, creating an air of maddening unease and uncertainty. It’s stunning.
I’ve stressed that this is not a horror film and it isn’t but that’s not to say it doesn’t contain a couple of unexpected moments and a few instances of brutal violence. What I really liked about Crimson Peak was how often it thwarts the jump-scares we’ve almost come to expect from the modern horror experience. There’s one scene where I was absolutely on the edge of my seat fully expecting some sort of apparition to emerge from beneath the surface of a vat, I could hardly bear to watch…. but that moment never came. Rather than the quick release of a genuine fright, that tension gradually seeps away but not quickly enough fully to have dispersed before the next similarly set-piece moment and they don’t all end quite as impotently. Is this kind of technique a disappointment? It could be for some, and while it certainly makes Crimson Peak rather a slow burner, it also creates an enjoyably atmospheric cinematic experience. Edith stresses at the beginning that her novel is “not a ghost story but a story with ghosts in it.” It’s a distinction that the prejudiced publisher fails to appreciate and which the film’s trailer also fails to emphasise.
So, my advice? Skip the trailer altogether but don’t miss the film. So long as you shed any jump-scare horror movie expectations you may have, you won’t be disappointed. There may not be quite so much as you’d expect by way of tricks here but I’d still rank Crimson Peak as the perfect old-fashioned Hallowe’en treat. Oh and if you mostly just want to see Tom Hiddleston’s gloriously naked arse you probably won’t be disappointed either – when this hits DVD/streaming I can imagine there’ll be a lot of, um… screen-capping going on!