Crimson Peak Is Peak Del Toro And It’s AwesomePosted: October 17, 2015
1) Crimson Peak is not a horror film, at least not in the visceral-nightmare-fuel sense. While there are ghosts and gore aplenty, the film is not particularly scary.
2) Crimson Peak is not a surprising film when it comes to its story. If you’re familiar with the likes of Rebecca or Jane Eyre you can fill in the blanks of the narrative without much difficulty.
3) Crimson Peak is not a subtle film, on any level. There is no missing the blunt metaphors and themes on display, and stylistically it is not the least bit restrained.
There’s no denying that Crimson Peak is “lacking” in all of these ways, but I find it hard to hold these potential deficiencies against the film, mostly because I think it’s clear that they are very much intentional. While Crimson Peak might not match the popular expectation of what it could be, I think it is exactly the film that Guillermo del Toro wanted it to be, one that happens to be a film I enjoyed quite a bit.
The one thing in Crimson Peak that seems to have earned universal praise is the visual aesthetics of the film, and rightly so. This movie is classic del Toro, creepy and gorgeous in equal measure. The cinematography is sheer brilliance, full of stunning bursts of color: blues and oranges and reds and whites pop off the screen and clash against each other, a moody rainbow that could be overwhelming if it weren’t so carefully balanced by deep, unsettling shadow. And all of this is used to highlight the amazing backdrop that is Allerdale Hall, a tremendous practical set that is tangible while still being intensely surreal. The set is packed with detail that grows naturally from the characters that inhabit it, which then lays groundwork for the foreboding tone that permeates every inch of the story. The setting puts us in the correct mindset to best appreciate the narrative, establishing an atmosphere that actively engages with the audience. But as amazing as the atmosphere is, it is far from the only successful aspect of the film… unless you can’t appreciate genre archetypes being executed to perfection
Simply put, Crimson Peak is a formal exercise for del Toro, taking a classic (and familiar) gothic romance/ghost story structure and executing it beat for beat. This is not a deconstruction of the literary horror films of the past, but an immediate continuation of them, using all the traditional ingredients as they were intended. We get the bookish protagonist, the dashing and mysterious aristocrat, the eerie house with off-limits areas and the implication of some foul play in the past, all delivered in a calm, deliberate manner. However, this does not detract in any way from the effectiveness of the final product. Using tried-and-true narrative structures should never be a limit on a film’s impact, particularly in the hands of a cinematic master like del Toro. Clearly he sees no reason to reinvent the wheel on this subgenre, and I for one don’t think the film is any worse for wear as a result. If anything, del Toro’s reliance on these established plot beats allows him to focus on the emotional and thematic depths of his characters, which is ultimately what makes the film such a success.
For the most part, the narrative is driven by three characters: Edith (Mia Wasikowska), her paramour-turned-husband Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). In Edith, we see an unapologetic dreamer, a woman hoping to be a serious writer who isn’t immediately concerned with finding a husband or what her society peers think of her. She represents hope and action, the potential to become someone wholly your own. Edith’s dark opposite is Lucille, an intense and twisted woman who is fully ensconced in her past. She is defined by the darkness of her own childhood, and doesn’t care about anything except holding on to what she already has. And caught between the two is Thomas, who clearly has dreams of his own as Edith does, even as he remains shackled to Allerdale like his sister. He is torn between the bright possibilities his new life with Edith could bring and the awful, crushing weight of his past with Lucille and their home.
It is in the conflict between these three characters that the tortured emotions of the story are brought to light, and set as they are against such a heightened backdrop del Toro is able to explore those emotions with devilish glee. The film largely exists on the melodramatic end of the emotional spectrum, though that hardly feels out of place in a film such as this. Furthermore, the plot is structured to reveal the major emotional beats at a deliberate pace, to avoid overwhelming the audience with the melodrama. Even if you can guess all of the revelations before they happen, del Toro’s calm pace allows each emotional moment to land on its own before moving on to the next beat. Personally, I was too wrapped up in each individual beat to bother to guess what might come next, making the predictability of the plot irrelevant. As each beat comes and goes, it builds on the emotions of what came before, making for a truly effective climax where the emotions are just as impactful as the Grand Guignol gore on the surface. All of this — the heightened setting, the clean-cut plot, the contrasting characters, the melodramatic tone, the deliberate pace — act in service of del Toro’s theme. Specifically, del Toro is exploring the idea of love as a prison, one that can mutate and distort its prisoners in the most terrible ways. And in this idea of love that corrupts, del Toro works back to his habitual sympathy for monsters, wanting to explore who they are and how they came to be. Here he considers monsters born out of love, and how particularly tragic it is to see such a potentially beautiful thing lead to such pain. It is sad and bitter and awful, and yet it never feels like a cynical depiction of love; rather, it shows love’s power, and how like any other power it can be destructive if born out of darkness.
In the title of this review I said that Crimson Peak is “peak del Toro”. I do not mean that this is his best work, but rather that this film is incredibly emblematic of del Toro as a filmmaker, a solid summation of all his stylistic and thematic tendencies. It is a film where del Toro takes the familiar and utilizes it to explore his own impulses and interests, continuing a classic narrative tradition while also building on an individual artistic voice. Crimson Peak might not be scary or surprising or subtle, but it is as moody, creepy, gory, emotional, and beautiful as one could ever hope for a Guillermo del Toro film to be, and I for one am going to savor it.