Movie Review: Crimson Peak (2015)

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The latest brooding visual fantasia from the visionary mind of Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro is an exceptionally difficult puzzle of a film to define. Crimson Peak is equal parts a throwback to Gothic Victorian romances, a passionate embrace of pseudo-horror fantasy, and a complex web of the director’s personal influences. Del Toro includes nods toward the vibrant colors of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, the absurdist tales of viscous entities beyond time from H.P. Lovecraft, and an unsettling mixture of novelists Mary Shelley and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (both explicitly mentioned in the film). “It’s not a ghost story,” states protagonist Edith Cushing (a name concocted from personal influences, namely novelist Edith Wharton and Hammer horror actor Peter Cushing), “ghosts are a metaphor for the past.” While it is true that ghosts are secondary in Del Toro’s feature, they don’t quite reach the poetic depths of metaphor. Instead, Crimson Peak can only be considered a display of surface level excess—a showcasing of enrapturing atmosphere, color, and texture within its decadent sets, gorgeous costumes, and sweeping visuals, proving that stylistic focus can translate into cinematic substance. As the film finds delightful veneration in its own mannered stylization, it dangerously teeters toward the void of simple pastiche, and this devotion to excessive beautification is the leading strength and weakness of Del Toro as a famed visual fantasist. Fortunately, Crimson Peak’s intent on immersing us into the grandeurs of Victorian horror is successful as it gives appropriately ghastly and delectably enjoyable moments in all of the creepily horrifying and superbly bloody ways. Though it remains thin on substance and becomes occasionally distracted by imitation, Crimson Peak seems more like a passionate recreation of a relic from the past—an impoverished narrative enhanced by sheer cinematic wonderment, clumsily reviving a lost art-form.

On its face, Crimson Peak is a dizzying concoction of multiple genres, obscure cinematic and literary references, and an intimate display of Del Toro’s auteur sensibilities. It goes against all logic that the film should realize any coherency in all of its inspired chaos, especially since the narrative never fully embraces its varying imitations. It’s a film featuring ghosts, yet is not a ghost story; it has the sumptuous feel of a romance film, yet is not technically a love story; it presents itself as a mystery to be discovered, yet there is nothing surprising to its stretch of the word “revelation.” Returning with screenwriting collaborator Matthew Robbins from Mimic (1997) (one of Del Toro’s least enthralling features), Crimson Peak follows outspoken and independent aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) as she is courted by the penniless Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a sensitive man with elaborate venture capitalist dreams. Haunted by her own apparitions of the past, Edith falls for the mysterious Baronet and moves to his home of Allerdale Hall that bleeds crimson clay—a dilapidated haunted mansion reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre with the eerie atmosphere of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, or Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961). It is a devious world fashioned by a monument of homage rather than a purposeful narrative—a combination of the Victorian social norms of Edith Wharton (Age of Innocence), the best of the Hammer horror films (The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958)), and even bits of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. These highlights toward imitation suggest that Crimson Peak is a film guided by an uncompromising sense of imagination and enthusiasm for genre making that occasionally leads the filmmaker into superficial, lush aggrandizement rather than unique art. Del Toro blends his two opposing cinematic worlds of the intimate passion project and the extravagant blockbuster, as he embraces visual extravagance over narrative substance in this film dripping with the attributes of others.

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Unfortunately, Crimson Peak does not adopt the Mexican auteur’s usual flair for allegorical fantasy as he has done in numerous projects, from The Devil’s Backbone (2001) to Pan’s Labyrinth(2006), both of which venture the parallel terrors of childhood and war. This latest film does not seem bothered by its transparent mysteries, predictable genre conventions, or avoidance of even literal metaphor, as it ventures superfluous aesthetics and hackneyed embellishments. But, what a wondrous exhibition of cinematic overstatement this film produces. Once taken into the seemingly blood-dripping walls of Allerdale Hall, we become immersed into a world of satin dresses, secret passageways, and ghostly apparitions opulently lit by candelabra and moonlight (all of which is made possible by the exceptional production design of Thomas E. Sanders and costume designer Kate Hawley). It becomes a thrilling tour within the demented, twisted, and gross version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, as experienced through our hesitant and frightened protagonist Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing. Her performance is not entirely consistent (at least when compared with her other Victorian performance in Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011)) but her initial outspoken charm encourages sympathy, despite her shrinking presence once she becomes the sickly victim. Her beauty and innocence is counteracted brilliantly by Jessica Chastain’s Lucille—the callous yet sensuous sister of Thomas Sharpe who demonstrates the true menace that lives within the walls of Allerdale Hall. Chastain is the highlight of the film whether she’s feeding butterflies to ants, seducing rooms with her elegant piano playing, or becoming the knife-wielding menace that drives the exaggerated and bloody third act. Unfortunately, the men are underwritten—a quality that continues throughout Del Toro’s work from Mimic (1997) to Pacific Rim (2013)—with Hiddleston transcending the material, utilizing his undeniable allure and soulfulness, while poor Charlie Hunnam looks entirely lost as the third wheel in a Victorian love triangle.

These lacking qualities do not disturb the potential pleasure of Crimson Peak, as long as you are prepared for grotesque violence, plush visuals, and Del Toro’s sincere commitment to elegance. The intent is simple—a film engrossing and titillating for the senses, from the horrors and delights of visual splendor to the lasting sense of dread throughout its production. Whether it is the eerie yet romantic brooding hallways of the ancestral mansion, or the smooth camera movements enrapturing the viewer in the film’s obvious beauty, the film’s reunion of the Mimic crew with horror cinematographer Dan Lausten captures the film’s optical delicacies. Even the wraithlike specters, with their gross deformities and physical signs of horrid undoing, are captured with beautiful and transfixed appreciation. All of the ghosts are a blend of Guillermo Del Toro’s previous creative constructions, as they seem reminiscent of creatures from Hellboy (2004), while also possessing wounds that disappear into the ether, similar to the apparition from The Devil’s Backbone. The lifelessness of these ghosts as accentuated through the overdone aspects of CGI are a welcomed element, even though they could have been brought to further life through Del Toro’s penchant for puppetry and physical designs; and, because they are secondary to the tale, these wraiths become literal warnings of violence instead of metaphors spoken of in self-reference by protagonist Edith. There is nothing subtle about Del Toro’s latest work—from the sweeping camerawork, to the beautiful costumes, to the exaggerated acting—but it is the best kind of creative embellishment, satisfying our senses, our wonders, and (most importantly) our imaginations.

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In essence, Crimson Peak is Guillermo Del Toro’s invitation to be fully ensconced in his unwieldy imagination, and nothing more (or less). With its gothic set designs, romantic swells, and gorgeously brutal imagery, this is certainly a film with a limited audience of genre enthusiasts, horror historians, and those with an appreciation for the beauty of gore. However, best to keep an open mind for a Del Toro film—he is so well versed in literature and cinema that it is difficult not to admire such a lush passion project. The narrative certainly could have been more cogent and the characters more solidified, but Crimson Peak is more of an invitation to experience the beauty and to be enthralled by the imagery just as Edith experiences them. It’s an unrecognized accomplishment to know a story’s limitations and embrace the simplicity of its atmosphere, instead of over-complicating it with constant setup and repetitive exposition. There may not be great depth to Crimson Peak, but there is plenty of cinematic texture and gushing ornamentation. Even though the film does not sweep us into sober emotions, you can still lose yourself in its devotion to artistry, one dependent on the senses rather than the heart. Crimson Peak acts as a master digital painter’s fantasia and to succumb to it is to rediscover a lost form of cinematic beauty, one that has not graced the theaters in quite a long while.

Grade: B

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