Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro's newest, is a lot of things: it's a sumptuous horror movie, a convoluted piece of Victorian romance, and a twist-ending thriller. Although these elements were all thrown into del Toro's cinematic blender, the result is more of a jumble than a puree, with subsequent moments, scenes, or even shots feeling like they belong in different styles of film in a way that feels both irreverent and hackneyed. Ultraviolent moments are followed by quippy dialogue, horrible scares and terrors interspersed with melodrama.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Producers: Guillermo del Toro, Callum Greene, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen
Editor: Bernat Vilaplana
Music: Fernando Velázquez
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam
Premiere: September 25, 2015 – Fantastic Fest
US Theatrical Release: October 16, 2015
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
The first act follows Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the sole heir to a prominent Buffalo industrialist. Edith has seen ghosts since childhood, starting with the shade of her late mother, and writes ghost stories hoping to be more like Mary Shelley than Jane Austen. Things start to change for her when she is wooed by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) in a very Austen-esque fashion—the climax is an unusually competitive waltz that looks like it could have been photographed by Max Ophuls. Thomas is a British baronet and inventor who has come to America to find a financial backer for a machine he devised, a device to mine clay at his family estate. This is no ordinary clay, but a grossly somatic red goop whose texture and color resemble some unspeakable viscera; it makes his estate ooze this bloody solution from the walls and floors. Soon after her father's death, Edith marries Thomas and ends up living in his uncanny mansion along with his creepy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).
The blossoming romance between Edith and Thomas is multifaceted. We actually see them doubt each other and learn to build trust (or distrust) like fully fleshed people, something that is very rare in horror. There are violent and upsetting cut-ins, coming out of nowhere with all the intensity of the action scenes in Drive, and there are chilling horror-film moments as ghosts who haunt Edith appear nearly any time she is alone. There are also skin-crawling extreme close-ups that feel totally out of synch with the rest of the narrative but are inescapably affecting. But other than these insertions, the plot totters along at a breakneck pace, with dialogue delivered with all the expediency of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. The editing doesn't allow the formality of a beat between lines—they are simply delivered back to back, so that their meaning sometimes doesn't land until a few seconds later when they can be processed by your brain. This seems old-fashioned rather than crude (as does a lot of the film) but it is all in the service of del Toro’s distinctly Victorian aesthetic choices—everything is draped in lace yet there persists a deep sense of cold and foreboding that all the decadence can’t muffle.
The film's central setpiece is the mansion—a building somewhere between the Addams family house, Dracula’s castle, and an Edward Gorey illustration. It is built like a tower, with a wide spiral staircase leading up five or so stories and a hole in the roof that constantly trickles precipitation all the way down to its cavernous grand entrance. This waning edifice, a once proud mansion—now crumbling, sparely peopled, and constantly oozing sanguine clay from any opening—is perhaps the definition of gothic horror. And the drama is gothic too, lacking the urgency that comes with contemporary horror. Edith is consistently disoriented, waking up alone and shivering every time she takes a sip of the tea that Lucille prepares her, and mournful ghosts consistently hound her, but she's not a typical scream queen running in fear. This film is closer to Caligari than Psycho, with horror seen not as something that a daring hero might escape but more an unyielding torment that may end, but only through providence.
As the plot builds, the characters become more complex. Lucille is always creepy and somewhat aggressive toward Edith, but piecing together her life and her relationship with her brother is surprisingly interesting. And Thomas is equally rich, a fundamentally good man who has genuine affection for Edith but who always seems somehow driven by sinister motives. As Edith tries to piece together the mystery within the horrific setting of their estate, the interweaving relationships become compelling. That’s really a testament to the work of the three leads, who lend subtlety and complex ambivalence to characters that, plotwise, could have been extremely flat.
But where its Victorian tone and visuals are Crimson Peak's great strength, they are also its flaw—something that becomes obvious in the third act as the plot's twist ending is revealed. The twist is clichéd and predictable, boring in an attempt to be timeless. Certainly thousands of pulpy Victorian-era romances ended the same way, so you can hardly blame del Toro for using it here, but that doesn't make it any less bland. And its importance in the subsequent action sours the terrific work that has gone into the rest of the film. The first two acts are an A plus but the third is a C minus.
Guillermo del Toro has always been something of a renegade—too arty for the mainstream and too indebted to tacky horror and superhero tropes to be wholly accepted by arthouse cinema. Like Tarantino, he makes movies instead of "films" and lacks the condescension to tell the difference. But del Toro's fascination with form and his visual imagination go far beyond Tarantino's and is perhaps better compared to the world of visual art. Maybe the best comparison is Salvador Dalí, another truly obsessive visual practitioner who was an outsider artist, never fully accepted into the French poets' club called the Surrealists. And like Dalí, del Toro’s fascination with his own aesthetic goes well beyond reason—if you asked either of them “why all the insects?” they wouldn’t really be able to explain.
Crimson Peak is a part of that obsession, a film so Victorian it’s almost anachronistic—as if this film were made before film technology had even been invented. From its lacy set dressing and cold harsh depiction of reality to its intense fascination with the allure of colonial prestige, or even its somewhat antiquated perspectives toward marriage and family, Crimson Peak stinks of the late nineteenth century. Sadly that obsessive attention to detail also bleeds over into its plot. Its fusion of genres is breathtaking, its monsters discomfiting, its characters complex, its set design incredible, and its action scenes thrilling—but it is so beholden to a contrived plotline that it fails to be great and remains only singular.