Guillermo Del Toro
Some would posit that there are two Del Toros; the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and the man who made Pacific Rim. Whenever a new release is announced, people wonder whether the fanboy or the visionary will be at the helm. I wouldn’t say I entirely agree with this dissociative identity disorder diagnosis but I will acknowledge that Crimson Peak feels like the exact midway point between emotional period suspense and style over substance.
Young, independent and headstrong, Edith Cushing [Wasikowska] is not the typical heiress to a self-made nineteenth century industrialist. She has a keen penchant for writing and a fascination with ghosts, following the death of her mother. One day a young man from England, Sir Thomas Sharpe [Hiddleston], arrives in New York, seeking investors for clay extraction from his land. Despite her father, Carter Cushing [Jim Beaver] rebuffing the investment, Edith falls in love with Sir Thomas. Unhappy with the union, Carter hires a private investigator to dig into the past of Sir Thomas and his standoffish sister, Lucille [Chastain]. At this point if I go any further with the synopsis, I might as well tell you the story, so we’ll just leave it there.
The story openly acknowledges, with its own internal parallel, that this is not a ghost story but a story that happens to contain ghosts. A closer categorisation would be gothic romance, a genre which has been long since absent from our screens. For those who don’t know, gothic romances are grounded horror stories that focus heavily on “feminine perspectives,” sometimes with supernatural elements, sometimes not. Crimson Peak is very much an homage to 1940’s adaptations like Rebecca, Gaslight and 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, with the added bonus of a rather mature understanding of ghost lore. By that I mean, the ghosts are of course used to scare the audience but their presence makes sense and is almost justified by horrific actions and physical keepsakes – without wanting to spoil too much. Unfortunately, this grounded reality serves to hinder the denouement but I’ll expand on that later.
As with every single Del Toro flick, the production design is astounding. The costumes are lavish and flamboyant while also being completely period-plausible, the sets are swelling with detail and the cinematography evokes a strong emotional colour palate without being heavy handed. I must confess, the cinematography was one area of concern going into the film, as I think Del Toro’s work with Guillermo Navarro has yielded nothing but spectacular results but Dan Laustsen’s history with the horror genre (and Del Toro himself) proved him more than capable of meeting Del Toro’s distinctive visual style. Furthermore, there are plenty of clues laced throughout the set design and narrative that illustrate how the film will end which demonstrates a purpose driven decorative style, rather than the slapdash “plonk that in because it will look good enough” mindset that all too many period horrors rely on.
Leaving the cinema, I couldn’t help but feel a little riled. It’s not a bad film but the finished piece felt somehow beneath Del Toro; very much a middling effort devoid of real impact. As stated, the film is visually pleasing (even if a few of the CGI effects’ reach exceeded their grasp) and the sound design is wonderful but the narrative is a little worn and trite. The truth is, if you haven’t seen a lot of gothic romance/horror or aren’t familiar with the classics then Crimson Peak will be a far greater source of entertainment for you. To my mind it felt akin to a remake of a foreign language hit. All the notes and elements were in place but retreading familiar ground produced a slightly disappointing lacklustre effect. Again, it’s not that Crimson Peak is a bad movie, I’ve just seen far superior versions and while Del Toro has referenced and recreated them with tender care, he hasn’t really produced anything new or innovative.
On top of that, after an hour and a half set up, the final act feels somewhat rushed. Obviously as key information is revealed the plot has to spool faster and faster to a conclusion but in doing so, it made the build-up seem plodding and bloated in hindsight. The final chase is brilliantly tense and with all of Chastain’s coiled rage unleashed in full shrieking glory, it’s a haunting and gripping finish. What’s more, it’s very refreshing that a film with two strong female roles doesn’t end up with one of them being saved by a man (well, not entirely); ensuring Wasikowska’s Edith remains a pleasingly strong and capable individual from start to finish. Having said that, with the supernatural taking a backseat the final third feels a touch unsatisfying and anti-climactic.
And yet the more I think on the film, the harder it is to say exactly where it puts a foot wrong. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal enjoyment, which in turn relies heavily on your own understanding, appreciation and knowledge of the greats that have paved the way for and inspired this release.
16th October 2015
The Scene To Look Out For:
Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of horror. But that’s not entirely accurate, I just don’t like jump-scares. Violence, gore, suspense, they’re all arguably fine, it’s just the extremely abrupt loud noise accompanied by a flash of bright or gruesome imagery that I have problems with. Interestingly, while this film has plenty of jump-scares, it focuses more on maintaining an eerie atmosphere. And everything that takes place within Allerdale Hall is masterfully executed – possibly owing to the fact that the entire manor is an actual working set, rather than a series of unconnected rooms and green screens.
People have been raving about Jessica Chastain for a while now and I’ve not got it. This can happen with a lot of rising talent, they just overwhelm every release and you’re expected to appreciate them for the wonders they are. Some become iconic (Tom Hardy) while others highlight their limited range (Sam Worthington). Chastain had yet to prove herself to me, so I couldn’t make my mind up. I admit she’s very capable and was impressive in The Martian but nothing standout. Until now. This is the film where I finally get it. I wouldn’t say she’s had a chance to really open up as an actor with her previous releases but the passion, madness and fury demonstrated here is just sublime. I can’t praise her highly enough.
“The red clay bleeds through the snow, hence Crimson Peak”
In A Few Words:
“An ambiguous release; some will love it while others will feel it stays in the shadows of those it emulates”