✭✭✭✩| Oct. 24, 2016
“If I cannot inspire love… I will cause fear.”
-Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
It’s a testament to Shelley’s writing that this line – uttered by Victor Frankenstein’s creation – inspires as much tragedy, as much empathy, as much love, as any other in her 1812 gothic masterwork. Inspiring both love and fear, empathy and unease all at once is among her’s and (her biggest fan) Guilliermo del Toro’s greatest strengths. “I love the idea that when gothic horror started, they used to call it a ‘pleasing terror,'” he once professed. Most of his films, from Blade II to Pacific Rim contain noteworthy and terrifying creations, but are compelling due to the humanity with which del Toro imbues them. There is a loveable quality to even his most fear-filled imaginings. In what others might deem villainous or disturbing, he extrapolates beauty and sympathy – sometimes sacrificing narrative, or his heroes and heroines, in the process.
Del Toro’s latest film, Crimson Peak, is a dazzling homage to favorite his writers – Shelley and Austen get verbal citations – and favorite directors (gothic/romantic tradition, Dickens, Brontë, Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Kubrick’s The Shining, Hammer films and German Expressionism are among his deep well of influences here). It’s a picture that, like Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, not only pays homage to a forgotten genre, but reimagines it, kids it, and – at times – transcends it.
Our story, like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, follows a young woman, Edith Cushing (namesake of Peter, assumedly) and her experiences with the supernatural. The first ghost she encounters is her mother’s (whose shadow recalls Nosferatu), warning her of a more tangible evil: “Beware Crimson Peak,” she says. Enter the Sharpe siblings, Thomas and Lucille (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), pale as a winter’s day, with cheekbones capable of piercing the night. One courts Edith and whisks her away to England, the other plays a devilish piano with an equally devilish glare in her eye. Edith, partly infatuated, partly subsumed by the trauma of her father’s death, falls into Thomas’s arms and through the gates of Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe estate. You can imagine – or rather, let del Toro imagine – what comes next.
It’s unfortunate that Crimson Peak was marketed as an out-and-out horror film with haunted houses, scares, and ghosts to spare. Sure, there are specters, but their motivation isn’t to scare so much as intrigue, lure, and incite us into del Toro’s world. “The ghosts are just a metaphor” Edith says, of her own novel (which, some would say is film’s story, too); the same might be said of the film – though that doesn’t mean it’s spirits don’t frighten, and that the special effects don’t stun.
Del Toro’s film, like the best gothic novel, is rife with symbolism: Allerdale Hall’s past is a terrifying one that spawns images and sounds alike. Its walls and pipes bleed red clay, its hallways are structured like keyholes, its fireplace flares with its keepers’ temperaments, and, of course, there are its spirits. This is without getting into del Toro’s color palette, the moths in the attic (not butterflies!), or the adorable papillon dog (an apt choice of breed). This is a film that, like the house it inhabits, “breathes”. There’s even a rhythm to the editing, a heartbeat. Watch as del Toro re-appropriates old-school editing styles: the wipe, the iris, and the cross-dissolve make up the skeleton of his transitions. The wipe implies a cleansing of the palette, of the past with which Edith and Co. are so consumed. The cross-dissolve conveys the inability to get away from it – an eerie lingering, a ghost embedded in the film’s very construction.
If there is a beating heart beneath Crimson Peak‘s polished embellishments, pumping blood into the woodwork of its haunted house and spilling over onto the pages of Edith Cushing’s novel; its del Toro’s- his heart, his blood, his design. In a time of indiscernible horror films, terrifyingly contrived special effects, and an adherence to realism, the nightmarish romance his ninth film depicts is refreshing, imaginative, and admirable. His best creation, this time out, is Allerdale Hall: a Bleak House reimagined, a haunted, gothic masterpiece fully realized with cast-iron gates, creaky pipes, and a built-in sound system: the east wind rolls through the Hall’s core even when all the windows are shut.
When asked how many rooms the Hall holds, Thomas Sharpe replies “I don’t know…do you want to count?” If you want to know the answer, this is not the film for you. Don’t ask why there’s a loud, and cheesy ‘wow’ when Thomas Sharpe offers Edith Cushing his hand for a waltz, or why the roof of Allerdale Hall hasn’t been fixed, just sway along to the candlelight waltz and marvel at the wintertime snow that falls through the house’s drafty heart. This is film not from our world, but Guillermo del Toro’s. We may not always like the tune, but there isn’t a note that Crimson Peak hits that isn’t unabashedly his, and its best moments underscore what a masterful composer he truly is.
He does, however, miss a few notes here and there. Crimson Peak has few faults, but they are noticeable. Del Toro’s passion project, like baronet Thomas Sharpe’s clay-machine, takes time to build, and doesn’t quite reach the idealistic standards of its creator. Before the film’s final moments, and a thrilling final act, characters rarely exchange enough dialogue to merit much empathy. The focus is on del Toro’s camerawork, colors, and splendiferous sets, not establishing bonds with his more human creations. Their dialogue serves to move the plot, and barring a few nice touches (the moth/butterfly dialogue springs to mind), does an ample, if unadorned job of doing so. The plot itself is relatively thin, and Mia Wasikowska, like some of the film’s sequences, gorgeous but lacking in nuance. She starts as a confident, motivated author and quickly falls under the Sharpe spell, but Wasikowska’s actions and movements do little to characterize the devastating mental toll such a transition would have taken. Subtleties can speak volumes, and while the rest of the film has plenty, her performance has few. I’d malign the plot more if I believed it were del Toro’s main concern here. It isn’t. We’re not here for the plot, but for how del Toro realizes it – Crimson Peak‘s flourishes are worth the snowy, arduous, sometimes messy hike. The last few scenes, at the very least, should warm the hearts and cool the angers of even the coldest adventurers, the most ardent critics.
Crimson Peak deserves a big screen – so Thomas Sharpe’s candlelight waltz flickers before your eyes, so the eastern wind rustles through your hair, so the ghosts of the past are more terrifying, and more lovable, too. It’s a beautiful nightmare you’ll wish went on a little longer, if only to marvel at how well it gets under your skin and seeps into your heart.