Crimson Peak follows in Pacific Rim's footsteps as another film from director Guillermo del Toro that has a suggestive, snigger-inducing title for anyone who isn't aware of the film's content (and who still thinks like a ten-year old). Crimson Peak feels like del Toro's attempt to outdo Tim Burton, because you would be hard-pressed to find a more out-and-out gothic film than this one.
|Director: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
In the world of Crimson Peak, ghosts really do exist. That's the message we get in, oh, the first two minutes or so. This is not one of those haunted house films that plays a "do ghosts really exist or don't they?" game. It's right down to spectral shenanigans, as young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) quickly finds out when she's a teen, lamenting the death of her mother. A ghost visits her, warning of "Crimson Peak". Naturally she completely freaks out. Years later, Cushing is an aspiring author who wants to follow in Mary Shelley's footsteps (because, in her words, "she died a widow" rather than a spinster like Jane Austen). It's set up right from the outset, through Edith's behaviour and her writing, that she's obviously love-starved and inexperienced.
Conveniently, she crosses paths with a most eligible English bachelor, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is campaigning Edith's rich industrialist father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) to finance an earth-digging machine that will dig up the blood-red clay under Allerdale Hall and, hopefully, restore the Sharpe family's finances. Yes, the earth under Sharpe's mansion is the colour of blood, and at a certain time of the year the clay seeps up through the ground, thereby explaining why the place is nicknamed 'Crimson Peak'. It feels a bit contrived, and seems to be there purely so we get lovingly shot scenes of blood red in the snow, sort of like Fargo except with less of a wicked sense of dark humour and the absurd.
Edith falls for Thomas, much to Carter's displeasure, and that of potential romantic rival Dr Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). Added to this uncomfortable mix is Thomas Sharpe's icy, standoffish sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who for reasons of her own doesn't exactly warm up to this new romance. And much to everyone's dismay - save the happy couple - they head back to Allerdale Hall, with the broken and rotting ceiling and floorboards, groaning pipes, blood-red water and immensely creepy gothic architecture where Edith realises the warnings she'd been given about a place known as 'Crimson Peak' weren't just a case of a couple of ghosts pissing around for a few laughs. And, obviously, the house and its occupants are hiding a bunch of deep, dark secrets which Edith slowly uncovers.
Not being the biggest fan of gothic horror or haunted house films, I knew Crimson Peak had to truly fire on all cylinders to win me over. And it succeeded... to a point. Firstly, the film looks absolutely tremendous. I'm talking Oscar-winning levels of production and costume design. Del Toro and his crew achieve almost miraculous levels of detail, from the awe-inspiring architecture of Allerdale Hall to the walls coated with moths to the underground vats of red clay turned to dye. It's one of those films you could freeze-frame at any moment and mount a picture of that shot, like as if Terrence Malick suddenly went completely mental (well, more mental than he currently is) and decided to remake The Tree Of Life as The Creepy Dead Tree Of Blood and Torment. For a modestly budgeted film - at $50 million, which apparently is what constitutes "modestly budgeted these days - it looks like it cost double that amount, so credit to Del Toro and his imaginative and massively talented team.
But at the end of the day, I believe there's only so much you can do with the genre. As ghosts drag themselves along the hall, moaning and issuing dire warnings to Edith, you don't get caught up in what is plainly meant to be chilling, if not downright horrific, goings-on, but rather ticking off in your mind all the other ghost movies you've seen which have done pretty much the same thing. We've seen this all before. And, unfortunately, moments that could have been genuinely creepy become set-ups for your typical and obvious jump-scares that modern films rely upon, complete with shrieking soundtrack to emphasise the moment, in case we had otherwise lapsed into temporary comas. There were a couple of times where you could sense what was going to happen (it was just a matter of exactly when and where) that would have been far more unsettling and impactful if del Toro had downplayed them.
The plot is intriguing enough, and it feels like it's building to something truly momentous and unexpected. Well, without giving anything away, let's just say the reveal of the mechanisms of our antagonists and the goings-on of Allerdale Hall elicit more of a shrug and a "well, I sorta expected that" rather than a "ohmygodohmygoddidyouseethatholyshit!" that a film of this nature really needs to stick in the mind.
If it sounds like I'm taking a great big dump all over Crimson Peak, then it's only because my expectations had been set quite high from the outset. Perhaps this was a mistake, and a little unfair; after all, del Toro and his cast and crew set out to make a gothic horror film and succeeded well enough. Maybe there's only so much you can do with those tired ghost-haunts-the-mansion tropes. Or do we expect too much from del Toro himself? Where did these lofty expectations come from? It seems a little mystifying given he's really only delivered, in my honest opinion, one truly great film in his career. The man is a gifted visual storyteller, that much is true, but once again, as with Pacific Rim, he can't quite break free from the trappings of the genre he's playing in.
But despite these flaws, Crimson Peak does manage to impress and unnerve in equal amounts. Del Toro is still a master of framing, staging and choreography, particularly when it comes to sudden, shocking acts of violence. Like Pan's Labyrinth, he doesn't have to coat the screen in gore; the brutality of his violence looks like it truly hurts. Because he takes the time establishing the story with a leisurely opening three-quarters of an hour where characters and motivations are introduced, it's more of a shock when the inevitable blood and gore breaks out. CG feels like it's used sparingly (honestly, these days, who can tell unless we're seeing something that isn't supposed to exist in the real world?) and it's mostly effective, even if the ghosts come off a little rubbery. But it's some of the the quieter moments that linger longest in the mind, most notably when Lucille is feeding porridge to Edith with a spoon, dragging it across the lip of a cup in an agonisingly slow manner, creating the most unsettling screech you've ever heard a goddamn piece of cutlery make. If there was an Oscar category for best utensil in a film, the Crimson Peak spoon would be a shoo-in.
Thankfully del Toro also has a hugely talented cast to manage the difficult task of selling his gothic grandeur absurdity. Wasikowska is a likeable and reliable lead, but it's nothing we haven't seen her do before - the heroine slowly learning what fucked-up shit is happening all around her harkens back to Stoker and Alice in Wonderland. Hiddleston brings an uneasy and nervous charm to his character, made all the more understandable as the layers of the plot are peeled back. But the undoubted MVP is Chastain, who seems to fit best into this crazy world, holding back a thinly veiled contempt for practically anyone other than her beloved brother (you get the feeling she's one word away from strangling the person closest to her) and ultimately getting the chance to go for broke.So the pleasures of the set design and the performances tip Crimson Peak over to a win. It's certainly another case of style over substance, and feels as densely packed with wonderful little nuggets of detail as Hellboy II: The Golden Army did. It's just a shame that it's actually not scary (memo to Hollywood: cheap jump-scares don't count) and that, when you think about it, the ghosts of the story don't actually play that much of a crucial role, which is a little odd given that this is meant to be a gothic ghost story. It's worthwhile for the visuals, a tense last twenty minutes, some grisly violence and Jessica Chastain's scenery-chewing performance; just don't expect too much meat on the proverbial bone.