Movie review: “Crimson Peak” (2015)

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“You would know. Our little Jane Austen…she died a spinster, didn’t she?”

“I’d prefer to be Mary Shelley, actually. She died a widow.”

Somebody up there likes Guillermo del Toro, and, really, what’s there not to like? The genial Mexican writer-director, to whose name the appellation “visionary” has been a fixture of press releases for the last decade*, is a furious developer of fantastic (both in subject matter and in practice) ideas, a walking film encyclopedia whose eyes light up when he talks about movies – his or anyone else’s – and what feels like one of the few remaining true auteurs in Hollywood, or at the very least the only one working on quite so grand a scale. If he has never achieved commercial success commensurate with his level of artistry, A) that would be asking a lot, and B) he has nevertheless been afforded generally free reign to bring his daydreams and dark fantasies to life, which, in today’s Hollywood, is already something of a miracle. Del Toro’s latest effort, the grand and guttural Crimson Peak, likely won’t be the breakthrough that allows him to make movies his way going forward without a heaping helping of attendant struggle. With del Toro, however, you often get the feeling that the passion he obviously feels for his projects is so consuming and compelling that any obstacles he encounters in their making add up to so much necessary reinforcement. That passion also tends to make it to the screen intact, threaded through with thoughtfulness uncommon in the realms of mass market fantasy and horror. In the case of Crimson Peak, I was particularly taken with his conception of the ghost, an indispensable horror icon so often rendered as, and reduced to, just another cheap scare tactic lately. As with most everything cinematic, del Toro does ghosts the courtesy of taking them seriously. Part of what sets his movies apart is their refusal to see monsters as purely malevolent forces, however ghastly they may act or appear. That, of course, is the sort of nuance a character, or viewer, must discover for him or herself, assuming, of course, they live that long. Fantasy is in large part about discovery, and discovery, by definition, cannot exist without mystery. Crimson Peak is a great many things – a convincing period piece, an eye-popping starburst of gothic production design, a heady rush of turgid theatricality, a spooky, at times unsettling, jaunt through arguably the haunted house to end all haunted houses – but, first and foremost, it is a mystery.

*In fact, he might as well just change his name legally to “Visionary director Guillermo del Toro”, not unlike how feared Middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler did in the early 1980s. To Hagler, a career overachiever who never quite got the credit he either desired or deserved, “Marvelous” wasn’t a matter of opinion. He made it a legal fact of life so NBC couldn’t back out of saying his nickname on air, and, whether coincidence or not, the second half of his Hall of Fame career was far richer and more noteworthy. A film director with a five-word legal name would at least get people talking and focus their attention a little more. To be sure, nobody ever again confused the marvelous one with the numerous other workaday Marvin Haglers dotting the landscape.

crimson peak posterTrue to form for its creator, Crimson Peak is itself an evocative title, one that suggests a good deal without really telling you anything. Though my interest never flagged, during its early development, I found myself subconsciously convinced del Toro was making a volcanic disaster movie, which seemed a bold choice even for him. What a relief when I started hearing all the internet chatter about ghosts. Similarly, much of the movie’s appeal lies in how close it keeps its cards to the vest, conceiving its tale of Edith, the duplicitous Sharpe siblings, and the grand English estate they share, along with the ghosts that haunt it, as an unfolding mystery, to the degree that no matter how far along the narrative may be, or how much the audience thinks it knows, there is always another clue or discovery just around the corner. The scene is set, with painstaking care and a deliberate lack of flourish that will be off-putting to many modern viewers, in 1901 Buffalo, New York, where young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) moves along the periphery of high society but definitely does not walk among its mavens. Edith, a budding suffragette and aspiring author – because isn’t that so often the way in horror stories? – inherited that salt of the earth disposition from her father (Jim Beaver), a highly influential local steel baron. She innocently catches the eye of visiting English Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is freshly arrived stateside in search of investors for his lode-rich but failing ancestral clay mine. I should say, rather, that her innocence is what catches Sharpe’s eye. Thomas is a complex customer, a down on his luck aristocrat with a scowling, enigmatic, not-quite twin sister (Jessica Chastain) in tow and a crowded, murky past, charming and bluffing his way through a tour of cocktail parties and boardrooms alike, until a community pillar like Mr. Cushing, vexed by what he sees as the entreaties of a pampered leech with unwholesome designs on his daughter, encouraged by suspicious family friend Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), finally reaches the bitter end of his indulgence, among other things.

Despite some striking but fleeting direct overtures toward the supernatural, one could be forgiven at this point for mistaking Crimson Peak for an American take on a mannered period drama like Downton Abbey, so convincingly ensconced is it in this very particular, opulent, and alien time and place. This is a film that wants to unfurl in movements, not unlike an opera, though it might be more accurately described as an evolving, progressively involving mélange of three distinct film genres: gothic romance, true crime melodrama, and ghost story. In its most heated moments, Crimson Peak clearly aspires to Wuthering Heights-like levels of grim, all-encompassing passion, though even when it falls short, its imagery speaks volumes in ways that words simply cannot. This is, at times, an achingly beautiful film. Thomas E. Sanders’ production design is a lavish marvel throughout, even before the action intensifies in particularly vivid ways and the scene shifts to the forbidding titular manor. Del Toro’s impish, inquisitive camera can’t help but get reeling drunk on the breathtaking visual splendor of it all. What feels a disorienting full immersion in Buffalo is only compounded by the film’s arrival at Allerdale Hall, which is, after all, merely your average, everyday gothic country castle embedded into a high hill in the English moors like a violent punctuation mark, and nestled on a deposit of rich building clay so vast and volatile that it pokes through and overwhelms even winter storms, imparting on the snow-covered grounds the distinct look of roiling, literally bloody, swampland. Edith and Thomas arrive at Allerdale a married couple, a season of turmoil and heartbreak theoretically behind them across the ocean, and proceed to set up housekeeping in a monolithic structure that would make the Overlook Hotel seem quaint and cozy by comparison.

“Ghosts exist,” begins Edith’s narrative voiceover. “This much I know. I saw one for the first time at the age of ten. It was my mother’s.” His lot thus cast, with an introductory scene in which not only does a specter manifest but physically crawls into bed with a rightly terrified little girl, del Toro sets out to present his ghosts in a way never quite seen before, gray-black and dark crimson wraiths with the inconvenient cosmetic details of their grisly deaths fully intact and visible, wisps and plumes of sickly reddish smoke bleeding outward from their wounds into the air. Visions of the dead memorably color the margins of Crimson Peak’s entire running time, some playing a larger part while others serve as stark and forbidding signposts along Edith’s path. Allerdale Hall is so desolate and massive, with only sister Lucille and an inattentive, practically absentee, groundskeeper/chauffeur around to keep the couple company, that cabin fever and creeping dread would well set in even if the manor wasn’t such a riot of suggestive architectural quirks otherwise. Witness the great holes in the roof, which let in drifts of snow or autumn leaves (despite the fact that the grounds are barely decorated with scrub brush, let alone trees), or the entryway floorboards that, when pressed, sink alarmingly into the oozing clay below, the rickety elevator with a “mind of its own” (not to mention a gate sufficient only for holding knife-wielding assailants at the very definition of an arm’s length), or the clay foundry two levels down, with its large vats deep enough to conceal a body Hitchcock-style, a lonely trench of red liquid bisecting the room as lazy snow falls through holes in the ceiling, catches the light spectacularly, and seems to hang in the air just shy of forever. Unnerved by her surroundings and soon feeling conspicuously, physically ill, Edith seeks to explore and learn the history of her new home before it kills her. Thomas and Lucille are little to no help in this regard, respectively, the latter lecturing Edith ominously on the immutability of death in the natural world and fixing her odd-tasting constitutionals, while the former struggles to balance feelings for the wife he’s improbably come to love with the sister whose whims he is patently afraid, or unable, to defy.

It has been some time since I’ve had a pure cinema sensory experience like Crimson Peak, which plays like a stealth advertisement for the joy of seeing movies in the theater. Its opening passages are as patient as its climactic stanzas are frantic, and the “visionary” side of del Toro’s personality is in expository overdrive throughout. It features deceptively effective sound design – the barks of Edith’s frisky Papillon echoing down Allerdale’s cavernous halls help underline the vastness of the manor, which creaks and groans at night nonstop, like the Titanic taking on water – a lush, overheated score right out of a 1930’s melodrama, and an embarrassment of simply marvelous standalone visuals, such as the closeup during Lucille’s object lesson of a swarm of ants devouring a butterfly, the detached mannequin heads staring directly at the camera in Thomas’ attic workshop, a cellar crawlspace with living moths pithed to the wall and fluttering, the tracks of approaching wagons tracing parallel lines of not-really-blood through the snow, the end of Edith’s desperate escape attempt as she flings open the front double doors and is blown backward and blinded by snow that comes at her in waves, or the sweeping camera pan that follows Chastain as she storms down a grand spiral staircase, dress and hair flowing wildly, moths exploding around her like omnidirectional shrapnel as their airspace is disturbed. Del Toro’s frame is vibrant and wonderfully alive, full at all times with any manner of things to see and loving details to linger on. I advise you see Crimson Peak in the theater if you have any interest, or else invest in the kind of 7.1 Dolby surround and 4K television setup that’ll probably be necessary to do its technical achievements justice.

After an uneven, extended sojourn in blockbuster-land, Crimson Peak is a return to the sort of barely self-contained, shadow-kissed, minor key exercises in chamber horror that initially made del Toro’s name – movies like the gritty ghost story The Devil’s Backbone or the phantasmagorical stunner that was Pan’s Labyrinth. It only really exists on their level as a “small” movie when viewed next to its immediate predecessor, the kaiju vs. sea monsters shoulda been domestic mega-smash (though Asia loved it) Pacific Rim. The contrast yields both good news and bad. The bad news: at $55 million, Crimson Peak is almost three times the budget of Pan’s Labyrinth, which, you may remember, was not only a critical breakthrough but a healthy commercial success, due in no small part to the earnings threshold necessary for it to qualify as a hit. Crimson Peak looks like a weak performer comparatively, which is a bit troubling for those of us in the vocal, unruly contingent that wants to see del Toro – whose vision-to-capital ROI ratio has perhaps already derailed the greenlit sequel to Pacific Rim and made the much longed for completion of his Hellboy trilogy an apparent financial non-starter – go on making films on his own uncompromised, invariably grandiose terms. The good news is that at least you can see where all that cash went, almost to the penny. If it seems I’ve focused unduly on Crimson Peak’s visual splendor here, at least it’s with good reason. With co-writer Matthew Robbins, del Toro labors to imbue his characters with words, motives, and passions equal to the backdrop he’s so carefully prepared for them, with a surprising degree of success. To that end, he’s aided to no end by his A-list cast – with Wasikowska so effective at both building and tearing down her character, who fears she’s in the process of going insane, Chastain as the icy, implacable black widow intent to speed her on her way, and Hiddleston as the timid grifter torn between them. Hunnam acquits himself nicely as well in the role of unrequited protector, though I couldn’t help but be amused at the sound of this English actor playing an 18th century Yankee aristocrat, complete with the SoCal biker accent he imported over from his run on Sons of Anarchy. Thankfully, such perceptible incongruities don’t detract one bit from the proceedings, or the fun contained therein, which, much like Crimson Peak’s clay-saturated grounds, exist as a veneer of outwardly lux respectability built upon a deadly foundation of bloody pulp.

“Crimson Peak” (2015) 3.5/4 stars                                                                                            dae3.5

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