REVIEW: Crimson Peak [2015]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 119 minutes | Release Date: October 26th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Guillermo del Toro
Writer(s): Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins

“Beautiful things are fragile”

If you truly want to know what to expect from Crimson Peak you should ignore the trailers—save their ability to highlight the gorgeous aesthetic—and instead read director Guillermo del Toro‘s mission statement. In it you’ll discover that this isn’t your usual horror story. Yes it has some jarringly gruesome visuals and is rife with skeletal ghosts, but his main goal was to pay homage to the “old-fashioned, grand Hollywood production in the Gothic romance genre.” This means a melodramatic tone that earns its laughs as intentional even if the characters’ deliver their lines and expressions with the utmost severity. And it means an ornate mansion as a setting, a behemoth hiding secrets and in this case a physical representation of dying love.

Think Rebecca, Jane Eyre, or Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein—the authors of the latter two both mentioned early on in conjunction with young, aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska). But also remember that this is 2015 and del Toro has never shied away from the grotesquely beautiful. So a murder propelling our heroine forward into the throes of a new husband (Tom Hiddleston‘s Thomas Sharpe) and the fading grandeur of Allerdale Hall in Cumberland, UK arrives with brutal force. The red of the clay underneath this English estate bubbling and seeping through its cracks like the blood pooling around this first victim’s lifeless body. It’s about finding the truth buried beneath the sediment of time, nightmarishly violent revelations no longer willing to remain quietly forgotten.

And it starts with a warning from a mother to her ten-year old daughter: “When the time comes, beware of Crimson Peak.” Carrying a jolt of fright, a pitch-black ghost gliding into bed with her for one last embrace, the moment leaves an indelible mark on Edith. It inspires her first novel’s ghost theme and keeps her hesitant to bring in a love story aspect like every publisher wants from a female author. She isn’t interested in romance even as one begins to unfold around her. Sharpe’s stranger in a strange land Barronet from across the Atlantic isn’t the only person after her heart. There’s also the recently returned Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), an old friend who’s pined after Edith for years. The attention suits her.

More of the film takes place in Buffalo, NY than I expected. This exposition of who she is and where she comes from—her father Carter (Jim Beaver) is built with a tough exterior from a hard life of success earned from blue-collar initiative—is crucial to understanding why Sharpe could fall in love with her and why she’d be different than the others who came before. Edith’s youth and strength gives Thomas’ sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) pause in allowing her to be the mark of whatever plan they’re scheming, but she’s who he wants. If only they knew her history with the dead. Allerdale Hall has its own demons and they’re hardly reticent in helping Edith understand what’s happening beyond the Sharpes’ desperate need for money.

If there’s one flaw in del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins‘ script, however, it’s the realization that what’s happening is exactly what you think. This isn’t necessarily the fault of predictability as much as effective foreshadowing. Chastain’s grandiose villainy plays a large role due to her possessiveness and jealousy. Relics like an ancient ring and sharp changes in mood blatantly set up the truth resulting in a double-edged sword. While we don’t have to worry about the “twist” and instead can enjoy the sensory brilliance of what’s onscreen, the importance of what Carter’s turn-of-the-century private detective Mr. Holly (Burn Gorman) unearths still remaining so integral to the drama renders it cliché. Thankfully plot is hardly the most important aspect of this tale. Character and atmosphere trumps everything.

It’s all in their looks too. Each actor excels at an expressive theatricality to project their feelings whether it be Beaver’s staunch pride melting into love for his equally stubborn daughter or Hiddleston’s pained fatigue after years of being dismissed as nothing but a title. The latter proves the most complex as he walks the line between his desire to make both Edith and Lucille happy. He is pulled back and forth, wrestling with the outcome of what choosing one over the other would mean for his pocketbook and soul. As for Chastain, she so relishes this opportunity to be evil. Right from her introduction at a party’s piano, serious and unimpressed by the applause, she proves determined and aloof. Her end game is what matters, nothing else.

And the mansion becomes its own character right alongside them. del Toro built this dilapidated architectural wonder on a soundstage so he could film inside an environment without relying on computer effects. He is one of the few auteurs still doing this, even bringing along friend and frequent collaborator Doug Jones to stand-in as the spectral, maternal ghouls floating and banging there way through the halls. The red clay against the darkness is unforgettable, the same red against the climactic whiteout outside perfectly eerie. Care is taken to truly craft these surroundings to serve the mood—shadows, light, and metallic clangs each enhancing the suffocating nature of Edith’s prison. Her bars are alive, though, each aspect malleable to give hope through their scares.

In this way everything but the lead trio is as much metaphor as physical like in Edith’s novel. del Toro plays with expectations by delivering on the promises of multiple genres simultaneously. The horror adds intrigue to the romance, updating the soap opera-y relationship drama for a contemporary audience less interested in costumed Victorian love. Crimson Peak is a ruse in this respect, subverting expectations to birth new fans to seek out his inspirations when they wouldn’t have otherwise. del Toro’s goal to breathe fresh life into Gothic romance succeeds in bridging today’s sensibilities with the tropes of a forgotten style. And he does so without compromising his own unique vision. This is pure del Toro and that’s the best we could ever hope for.


photography:
[1] MIA WASIKOWSKA stars as Edith Cushing in Legendary Pictures’ “Crimson Peak”, a gothic romance from the imagination of director Guillermo del Toro. When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place filled with secrets that will haunt her forever. Between desire and darkness, between mystery and madness, lies the truth behind “Crimson Peak”. Photo Credit: Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures. Copyright: © 2015 Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] TOM HIDDLESTON as Sir Thomas Sharpe and JESSICA CHASTAIN as Lady Lucille Sharpe in Legendary Pictures’ “Crimson Peak”, a gothic romance from the imagination of director Guillermo del Toro. When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place filled with secrets that will haunt her forever. Between desire and darkness, between mystery and madness, lies the truth behind “Crimson Peak”. Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes. Copyright: © 2015 Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] Dr. Alan McMichael (CHARLIE HUNNAM) is worried for Edith Cushing (MIA WASIKOWSKA) in Legendary Pictures’ “Crimson Peak”, a gothic romance from the imagination of director Guillermo del Toro. When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place filled with secrets that will haunt her forever. Between desire and darkness, between mystery and madness, lies the truth behind “Crimson Peak”. Photo Credit: Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures. Copyright: © 2015 Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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