Film Review – Crimson Peak
Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) is a perfect example of how advertisements can misconstrue audience expectations. Trailers and posters would have us believe that this is a horror film. That is not the case. Although there is plenty of spooky atmosphere, ghouls that lurk in the dark, and bloody violence, this does not fall into the traditional horror genre. It’s not even that scary. It’s more of a creepy gothic romance/mystery, along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) or George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), with a touch of Hammer Films thrown in for good measure. If this were another time and place, I could easily see Ingrid Bergman making her way into the eerie mansion as Vincent Price waits with a devilish grin.
If there is one thing that marks del Toro as a filmmaker, it’s his ability to transport us to a world completely his own. He has such a keen vision, so refined, that it’s hard not to sit back and admire everything he’s giving us visually. In this case, credit must go to Thomas E. Sanders’ production design, Brandt Gordon’s art direction, Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau’s set decorations, and the costume design by Kate Hawley. They all combine to create a dreamscape environment, where the real and imaginary coalesce into something unique unto itself. The U.S. and England featured here do not come from a real place, but somewhere otherworldly, setting the stage for mystery, love, and the grotesque to all exist together.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith, a young woman who dreams of becoming a writer at the turn of the 20th century. While her efforts at writing a “story that has ghosts in it” go rejected by publishers, Edith strives for success and continues to work at accomplishing her goal. That is until the baron Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) comes into her life and sweeps her off her feet. Traveling from England for business with Edith’s father (Jim Beaver), Thomas quickly takes a liking to her, which goes against the wishes of not only her father, but with Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) who also has his sights set on Edith’s affections.
Although we know the story will take place inside a haunted mansion, del Toro (who directs and co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Robbins) takes his time getting there. The first half involves Thomas and Edith’s romance in America. But that’s not to say these scenes are merely passable. There is so much life injected into every moment that shots burst with vibrancy. Notice the backgrounds, often del Toro fills them with elements for us to simply take in. People are constantly moving, bric a brac is populated everywhere, and the costumes flirt with being over the top but never crosses the line. Textures pop out and invite our gaze. It’s an understatement to say that del Toro sees things separately from others. During a menacing conversation between two devious characters, del Toro turns the camera away to watch a butterfly get devoured by an army of ants. It’s these details that make the story such an engaging experience.
And we haven’t even talked about the mansion. Allerdale Hall in northern England is an accomplishment of artistic design. When Edith travels there with Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), she discovers a dilapidated home on the verge of collapse. It’s cold and dank, and sits atop a hill made of red clay. This clay seeps into the wooden planks, conveniently making it look as though the house is bleeding. There is a massive hole in the roof, allowing leaves and snow to descend down the center of the house. This makes for strong night scenes where it appears as though it’s snowing indoors. And oh yes, the house also has ghosts, decaying creatures calling out to Edith, focusing in on her past and her future.
Like del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001), the ghosts here do not serve to scare us, although there are moments where they do startle us. Instead, they work as a mechanism for our protagonist to uncover the central mystery. Right away, we can sense that something is not right between these characters. A truth is not being told, and interactions lack that familial warmth. Mia Wasikowska does an excellent job of portraying Edith as a sleuth. There is a strength about her that goes beyond the physical, a determination to uncover the secrets and adapt to her circumstances. She often has to follow the audience in gathering information, but Wasikowska locks us in with her performance. Del Toro shapes Edith far more than a damsel in distress. She takes matters into her own hands, responsible for her own fate.
Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain play up their sibling characters with glee. Hiddleston’s Thomas is a conflicted person, suave and debonair on the outside while barely being able to hold his weaknesses from bubbling to the surface. Thomas is written to play with our expectations, we aren’t sure if we are supposed to be repulsed or enamored with him until the very end. Chastain vamps up Lucille as a modern day Mrs. Danvers. There’s a controlled recklessness with her delivery, she’s having a lot of fun and it shows. With the slightest gesture or inflection of her voice, Chastain tells us all we need to know about Lucille’s mindset and her relationship with Edith. Her performance is so strong that at one point simply scraping a spoon against the side of a cup generates a darkly hilarious reaction.
Front to back, beginning to end, I was fully captivated with Crimson Peak. Guillermo del Toro has made what is possibly his best English-language film, a technical marvel with standout acting by all involved. It’s unnerving, romantic, sexy, and a hell of a lot of fun. I felt like I was on a ride with a storyteller who knew exactly what he was doing.