Poor old Guillermo, why does nobody want to see your movies on the big screen? The worrying thing about CRIMSON PEAK being the second del Toro film in a row to underwhelm at the box office (despite the considerable draw of Tom Hiddleston in period dress) is not so much that it’ll stall his creative drive (it won’t) but that it will make studios even less likely than they already are to gamble on riskier projects.
After tragedy befalls her early in life, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) turns her vivid imagination to writing fiction, unconcerned with how this career choice will impact her socially and romantically. When the handsome Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives seeking her wealthy father’s patronage for his family’s potentially lucrative clay mining business, Edith returns as his wife to his ancestral home of Allerdale Hall in northern England, where secrets are buried in the blood-red clay and spectres and Thomas’ sister Lucile (Jessica Chastain) stalk the halls…
Much like the manuscript Edith completes at the beginning of the film, this is not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts in it – there is a difference. It’s a story of deception, of the darkest side of human nature, of memory and of madness. The ghosts represent all of these things. And like with all of del Toro’s work, flesh-and-blood people are shown to be far more frightening than the supernatural.
Crimson Peak proudly appoints itself like the early Hammer film such as CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but with the addition of gruesome J-Horror-esque ghosts. I was pleased that when the film does fully embrace its place as a horror film it took the Japanese line rather than that of many American horrors of recent years – the scares are prolonged and disturbing, coming from unsettling and uncanny imagery matched with eerie sound design rather than jump scare after jump scare.
Being of the Gothic persuasion, the film is a melodramatic affair, with performances, becoming more gleefully over-the-top as the mystery unfolds and revelations are made. Jessica Chastain steals the show as Lucile Sharpe, oozing withheld menace until something flips and the very walls seem to shake with her manic wrath. A tortuously tense scene has a simple premise and a chilling flourish from Chastain – as Lucile feeds a wavering Edith porridge in bed, she shudder-inducingly scrapes the spoon against the side of the China with each movement. Wasikowska is good as always, her china doll appearance harmonious with the period setting and Edith’s character, but she is asked to comment aloud on what is going on around her all too often and unnecessarily (she opens a secluded storage box and exclaims breathily “wax recording cylinders!”). Hiddleston’s position as geek heartthrob, rather than limiting him, actually liberates his performance. Thomas is endlessly charming and you want to fall for him as madly as Edith does, but you’re never sure how far into darkness del Toro will be prepared to take him as a character. In the end it’s clear this director does not fear the Hiddlestoners.
The film is stuffed full of symbolism, like Edith as a delicate yellow butterfly being slowly smothered by Thomas and Lucile, two great black moths. It’s also del Toro’s bloodiest film to date by quite a margin. Del Toro is perhaps the most aesthetically meticulous, detail-obsessed Hollywood filmmaker working today (perhaps joint with with Peter Jackson). His usual visual hallmarks – insects, clockwork mechanisms, iconography of death and religion, imposingly beautiful architecture – are all present and correct, and he still seems to relish creating rich worlds you feel you could reach out and touch.
Del Toro also like a bit of self-reference, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE sharing the most DNA, including an almost identical intro and outro thesis on the nature of ghosts. A nice visual del Toro continues to use is his undead manifestations adopting part of the environment that they died in. Santi in Devil’s Backbone was distorted and rippling because he died in water, whereas most if the ghosts of Crimson Peak are scarlet and caked in grime because they died on top of a clay deposit.
The plotting could generously be described as jerky. Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins probably spend a little too long building up to Edith’s arrival at Allerdale Hall. There’s intrigue and foreshadowing, but a little too much Victorian faffing about in the first half of the film as well.
Maybe 2015 audiences weren’t ready for the return of Gothic Romance. For all its gorgeous production design, atmosphere and thematic depth, the plot is a little disjointed and turns by key cast members being intentionally exaggerated won’t be for everyone. If this was Guillermo del Toro’s attempt to bridge his Spanish-language films with his Hollywood efforts, then it ends up feeling trapped between the two disciplines. I enjoyed it, but won’t deny it’s more of a flawed and fascinating talking point than something that works in its entirety. SSP