Beware the Ghosts
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
Guillermo del Toro is back behind the camera, a welcome return for a true artistic visionary. While his name may seem ubiquitous as del Toro is attached to more projects than Starbucks has locations, his previous effort was the kaiju-mech action film Pacific Rim and five years before that the fantastic Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Crimson Peak is a far different creature than those two, espousing a look more closely associated with the sublime Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Peak in a sense is quite different from anything del Toro has endeavored to create, doing its best to straddle the line between a Gothic horror and a Gothic romance, which are two fairly distinct story molds despite the word “Gothic” being attached to both. While that may have created a bit of a marketing problem for Universal, the tonal balance achieved by del Toro gives significant heft to a script that so often nearly achieves greatness but then frustratingly tumbles backwards. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is an astounding work of art, cutting through from dark, foreboding corridors and into the ivory whirlwind of a snowstorm effortlessly (a particular shot of Mia Wasikowska’s Edith throwing the doors of Allerdale Hall into the snowstorm is beyond breathtaking). The true star of Crimson Peak, as had become obvious by the virtue of its production alone, is the quality of production. Everything from the set design to Kate Hawley’s phenomenal costuming is utterly impeccable and puts much larger Hollywood productions to complete shame. The film as a whole, however, barely escapes from sinking into the very crimson peak that gives the film its name.
There are films that are inherently mediocre from beginning to finish, whose entire running time seems designed off the bat to punish the audience for something (I’m looking at you, Pan). Others are impeccable from those very frames, moving briskly while never losing a true semblance of depth (the recent masterpieces Room and Spotlight). Crimson Peak never approached the depths of Pan’s depravity but it doesn’t reach the levels of narrative fulfillment delivered by the other two. It exists between those extremes and that certainly is a part of why the story as a whole felt so frustrating at times. All the materials for greatness were present in a largesse, from the casting to the visuals to the female characters who for once felt more alive and complex than their male counterparts. The lapses in the film had an unfortunate habit of appearing at the worst possible moment, sniping away at the narrative with telegraphed twists, deus ex machinas, and character inconsistency. For all of its faults, however, Crimson Peak is never unwatchable by any stretch of its bloody imagination (that is not merely a British insult, the amount of literal stabbing here is astounding), drawing the audience in with its brilliant opening frames and never truly letting go, even if little threads of the rope golding everything together begin to splinter away.
The film begins as quaintly within the realms of the macabre as possible, with the funeral for young Edith Cushing’s mother traversing through the frigid corridors of snow. As Edith is sleeping fitfully, she notices quiet steps echoing slightly throughout the corridors of her own home. In an instance that is sure to psychologically scar any child for a decent amount of time, the ghost of her mother appears to her and warns of a mysterious place called Crimson Peak, a place Edith must avoid at all costs. So naturally she ends up there anyhow. But before that inevitable twist can occur, she meets an English baronet and his frigid sister in Sir Thomas Sharpe and Lucille Sharpe, respectively. Sir Thomas, an aristocrat whose station Edith refers wonderfully to as that of a parasite, arrives to garner funding from Edith’s father Carter Cushing and his compatriots for a clay machine. Carter, disdainful of the aristocracy, notes the amount of cities where Thomas’s funding requests had been denied and his unimpressive contraption to boot. Thomas then makes his way towards Edith’s heart, garnering her hand for marriage right before they traverse to his traditional home of Allerdale Hall. There’s really little that is surprising in this chain of events or even the ones that follow, with each link neatly connecting to the next but never in a truly unexpected fashion (with a few exceptions). The film continues to plow forward and perhaps there is something admirable in that sense of confident plotting. But its execution leaves much to be desired within the realms of surprise and suspense.
If Peak never truly terrifies as much as its potential, that aforementioned lack of surprise and suspense is responsible for a decent chunk of that. Del Toro, in his defense, made it perfectly clear that Peak was not a horror film in the vein of The Devil’s Backbone but instead a Gothic romance that happened to espouse a horror setting. That is all fine, but when del Toro’s and Matthew Robbins’s script throws horror out at the audience, it doesn’t land with the terror it ought to. Buoying that unfortunate tendency of Peak is the lack of subtlety springing throughout. There are a plethora of character moments where the film’s overt bluntness works heavily in its favor (the moment where Edith calls her future husband a parasite for one) but that doesn’t pay the necessary dividends as a narrative thoroughfare. The film becomes so enveloped within its own atmosphere that it unintentionally simultaneously manages to telegraph several twists in advance, like the solving of a certain murder case and the depravity of Allerdale Hall. Several twists of the camera seem less natural than the givings in of a heavy hand that simply couldn’t resist showing pieces of the puzzle right before they would naturally fall in anyhow. Case in point is a certain key on which there is a special engraving whose answer at last arrives not as a shock, but as an example of the banality of inevitability.
The aura-heavy script also falters at drawing out the complexities of its characters, giving them deep gray shades that never manage to be quiet as deep as the film makes them out to be. Tom Hiddleston’s Thomas is a serviceable character enough, even if his climactic transition into a man stricken with love feels hastened. Jessica Chastain has the most delectable performance in her antagonistic Lucille, stealing every scene flawlessly and even away from Mia Wasikowska’s Edith at times. Edith is in a sense a personification of Peak’s true problems, at times a formidable force of feminist power and at other times an empty vassal. Her vulnerability is a separate issue entirely and one that makes sense given the circumstances, but at some key moments it felt as if Peak was content to allow its protagonist to sink into the very crimson peak her mother’s ghost had so ardently warned her against. There is nothing wrong with Edith feeling lost and empty after a key marker of her life was so cruelly taken against her. There is something wrong with overwhelming Edith with so much overwrought emotion that she comes across at key junctures less sympathetic and more vapid than she truly is. But Edith recovers in character towards the climax, lifting the entire endeavor while brandishing a knife with the utmost ferocity. As she makes her final play of the film, del Toro frames it is a triumph of feminism against a chauvinistic trope. That success leaves the audience with a sense of euphoria, if also a wish that the the entire odyssey was as tightly constructed as those final moments in the bloody swath of snow.
Title: Crimson Peak
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Produced by: Guillermo del Toro, Callum Greene, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Music by: Fernando Velázquez
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Edited by: Bernat Vilaplana
Production Company: Legendary Pictures, DDY
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Dates: October 16, 2015
Image Courtesy: IGN, Legendary