Crimson Peak (2015)
If there’s one genre monster moviemaker Guillermo del Toro was born to tackle, it’s certainly Gothic horror. With extravagant buttoned-up costumes, an expansive behemoth mansion, a fetching cast of A-list actors and a premise that guaranteed spine-chilling phantoms from beyond the grave, Crimson Peak seemed like a sure winner — it certainly caught my attention, a dedicated fan of del Toro’s previous work. While this edgy, dark and sexy Gothic romance horror certainly lives up to its adult rating, delivering on its promised gore and kink, it more often than not fails to captivate, surprise or even shock its audience; the film has eerily beautiful things to show, though these sights are often as void or lifeless as the ghastly spirits or elaborate decaying structures that occupy the screen.
The first R-rated English-language film in del Toro’s thriving career, Crimson Peak comes across as an uncanny marriage between Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Devil’s Backbone (2001), though with a larger cast and a significantly bigger budget; it marks a welcome return to grand, good old-fashioned Hollywood Gothic romance, harking back to pictures that slowly but surely perished throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Just like any good Victorian Gothic romance yarn — think literature classics Rebecca, written by Daphne du Maurier or Jane Eyre, penned by Charlotte Brontë, both being cited as tonal influences on the film by del Toro himself — Crimson Peak sees an innocent heroine, in this case Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), venture to a rickety run-down estate where an enigmatic and brooding man turns out — or doesn’t turn out, depending on the text — to be the holder of a mysterious undisclosed past.
Set at the dawn of the 20th Century, in the year 1901, Crimson Peak tells the story of an aspiring young author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who, taken by surprise, is seduced and swept away by an alluring foreigner, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston); a stranger who has come to America to strike a business deal with Edith’s father, Sir Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). After an unforeseen family tragedy, Edith marries Thomas — against her late father’s wishes — choosing Thomas over her shy and stoic childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) — who happens to be madly in love with our female hero. Following her wedlock, Edith leaves her hometown of Buffalo, New York, to move to a luxurious, yet crumbling mansion inherited by the Sharpe’s.
Situated in a large rural and mountainous region of northern England — perched atop a hill of blood-red clay — this towering, castle-like dwelling, Allerdale Hall, had been nicknamed ‘Crimson Peak’ by locals, having received the moniker due to the crimson red ‘mud’ that ‘bled’ through the snowy grounds and stained the hillside during the Winter. Sharing the house with Thomas’ steely-eyed sister — who appears to be a little not-quite-right — noblewoman Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), Edith soon discovers that her charming new husband may not be who he claims, as his ancestral home harbors haunting supernatural entities and hidden secrets — subterranean mines and attics that are off-limits to Edith — which Thomas and Lucille so desperately and fiercely try to conceal. Bounded by desire and darkness, trapped between madness and mystery, Edith attempts to uncover the truth behind the Sharpe manor, unearthing the evil that lies buried within the walls of Crimson Peak.
To put it out there, Crimson Peak is a gorgeous looking film, a work of cinematic artistry. Being a true visionary, writer-director Guillermo del Toro loads the filmic canvas with morbidly entrancing visuals, lavishly photographed by Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Silent Hill (2006); Crimson Peak contains a myriad of saturated palettes, each frame ablaze with deep blues, teal greens, charcoal oranges and hits of gold, colors that have become so quintessentially del Toro. And let’s not forget the painterly contrasts of inky reds splattered against clean whites, the romanticized color of blood used as symbolism throughout. Stylized Romanesque architecture ads another layer to the film’s operatic splendor, its overall aesthetic resembling than of a Mario Bava Technicolor movie, where the sets and surroundings evoke the ‘Golden Age’ of Italian horror cinema.
Securing Crimson Peak’s practical feel — which del Toro fully tried to embrace — the opulent Allerdale Hall — a house that breathes and bleeds (literally oozing red clay) — was rigorously built from scratch, and comes complete with a fully operational old-timey cage-like elevator that runs along its metaphorical spine; credit goes out to production designer Thomas E. Sanders, Saving Private Ryan (1998) — along with set decorator Shane Vieau, Horns (2013), and art director Brandt Gordon, Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) — who have meticulously constructed the mansion — an edifice engulfed by narrow shapes and long winding passageways — in its entirety. The luscious tailoring by costume designer Kate Hawley, Pacific Rim (2013) — working hand-in-hand with the design department — is dreamy and theatrical, with the ostentatious wardrobe adding to the flick’s poetic mastery, as outfits mirror intricate derails in the historic home. We also have butterflies and moths (perhaps leftovers from the del Toro produced, 2013 flick Mama), functioning as motifs, 17th Century tapestry and provocative nightmarish visions, complete with crimson stained spooks.
Edith, cursed with the ability to communicate with the souls of the dead, receives a disturbing warning from a ghostly visitor, her recently deceased mother (having been taken by black cholera) when only a child — by far one of the film’s more creepy and impressive scenes — which, in turn, introduces undead apparitions into the storyline. On the subject of ghosts, while these non-corporeal spirits are indeed intricately designed spectacles — morbidly tormented with hollow eyes, born of the blood-red clay mines in which they were entombed — these ‘living emotions’ propel Edith deeper into the mystery but don’t appear to be very crucial to the plot. In unraveling the long-ago sins of Crimson Peak, these ghosts could’ve been anything from letters concealed in the manor walls, to photographs, or even a breadcrumb trail, making the ghosts themselves — who do very little outside of standing around and pointing Edith in the right direction — feel incidental and irrelevant, inserted solely to adhere to the picture’s Gothic makeup. If Crimson Peak proves anything, it’s that real monsters are made out of flesh and blood. Even so, there are no jack-in-the-box type scares; come to think of it, Crimson Peak barley manages to rustle up a hearty jolt for its entire runtime — a bit of a disappointment if you ask me. However, the film is bloody violent (excuse the pun), particularly in its climax, though most of the carnage plays out in a melodramatic and campy way.
With a script/story composed by del Toro along with co-writer Matthew Robbins, Mimic (1997), Crimson Peak more or less certifies that writing is not del Toro’s forte, though the talent assembled does manage to liven this predictable and often tiring tale — but, with a 119-minute duration, this flick certainly overstays its welcome. In a role that seems custom made for Mia Wasikowska — heck, she even played Jane Eyre in the 2011 film of the same name — the Polish-Australian actress (for the most part) does a credible job as Edith Cushing, a hopeful writer with a wild imagination, strong willed and courageous, a forward-thinking woman living in the late Victorian society. While Wasikowska surely looks the part, she’s often flat and dreary and a tad too one-note; nevertheless, the inquisitive naïveté of the film’s protagonist, brought about by Wasikowska, certainly steers the narrative and pushes it forward. Interestingly, the ‘Cushing’ name could be a subtle nod to the late Peter Cushing, an actor known for being somewhat of a staple of those classic Hammer Horror flicks, having played scientist Baron Frankenstein and vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing, among other noteworthy roles.
Tom Hiddleston, Thor (2011) — replacing Benedict Cumberbatch, having pulled out of the project at the eleventh hour — is relatively underwhelming as the ‘irresistible’ outsider Sir Thomas Sharpe, a master manipulator and ambitious inventor who finds himself torn between two enticing women; Thomas stands as the frame of the perverse and salacious love triangle at the heart of this psychological period love story, a romance that’s veiled in horror. Alas, this is certainly not the breakout role fans were expecting from the English-born heartthrob, as Hiddleston’s Sir Thomas Sharpe is rather underplayed and forgetful. Elsewhere, with long dark-black hair, an almost unrecognizable Jessica Chastain, Mama (2013), playing against type, delivers the film’s strongest performance as the malevolent Lady Lucille Sharpe; introverted and fueled by incestuous passion, Lucille will do whatever it takes to protect her family’s history — and her brother — acting as an opposite to Wasikowska’s Edith, both women bringing a balance of light and darkness to proceedings — think butterfly and moth. Chastain’s sheer intensity and magnetism wins Crimson Peak a few extra brownie points. Lastly, a slightly miscast Charlie Hunnam — coming off del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) — does the best he can as Dr. Alan McMichael, a well-bred ophthalmologist who’d been ‘smitten’ with Edith ever since they were both youngsters; despite his intellect and valor, the character is more or less redundant and amounts to very little, even though McMichael sets out cross-ocean to rescue Edith — fighting for the love of his life — when he realizes that she may very well have walked into a dangerous trap.
Featuring all of Guillermo del Toro’s signature elements and trademarks — vivid colors, imposing compositions, ravishing camerawork, exceptional designs and marvelous outfits — Crimson Peak should have really been better. Conventionally plotted, archetypal and without any genuine full-blooded scares — the flick’s tension predominantly centered around the mounting hostility between three people — moviegoers are sure to feel somewhat disappointed here; while the pulpy giallo artistry will certainly keep the visual senses occupied, the old world mannerisms and humdrum nature do hinder the film’s slow-burn pace. Overall, del Toro’s latest, while an imagined masterpiece, happens to be a perfect example of the well-known phrase, ‘all style and no substance.’
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by S-Littner
Crimson Peak is released through Universal Pictures Australia