Film discussion

Looking back at… Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak

For all its infamy as a genre that delivers scares and shocks, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there is a level of romance that can be applied to the horror genre, and that stories of ghostly hauntings can sometimes be just as much about love, or the damage that love can cause.

Released in 2015, Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak was released and marketed heavily as a horror film, and it’s easy to view the film as having been not very highly regarded upon release; its box office was not spectacular, and there seemed to be a feeling that critics weren’t as impressed, even though it has a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The truth lies somewhere in between. Critics that loved the film raved about it, and those who weren’t impressed seemed to be vocal in their disappointments, a sentiment applying to both critics and audiences who came expecting one kind of film, but seemingly not enjoying that they got something else.

Although marketed heavily by Universal Pictures as the latest horror picture from Del Toro, the truth is Crimson Peak is not simply a horror film. In fact, Del Toro is someone whose films are not usually those that can simply be simplified to one genre; to call Pan’s Labyrinth a fantasy film is to overlook that there is more to it than the fantasy elements, and similarly with Crimson Peak which was marketed as a haunted house film, and admittedly there are ghosts, the film has more in common with gothic, Victorian melodramas.

If anything, the film recalls Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula and Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of Frankenstein (a film savaged by critics but which is much better than its reputation would have you believe), mixing A-list actors, gorgeous costumes and a period drama with an erotically charged atmosphere complete with genre trappings.

Headed by a cast that includes Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam and Jim Beaver, the film is an exquisite viewing experience and much better than its detractors would have you believe. It’s not a film that simply gets by on scaring the audience, but instead opts to presents its ghostly atmosphere and beautiful production design with a complex narrative that recalls many an old-fashioned melodrama that comes complete with murder, secrets and betrayal.

Co-written with Matthew Robbins (Batteries Not Included, The Sugarland Express), with uncredited contributions from British playwright Lucinda Coxon, the film marked a return to horror for Del Toro after the more brash and action oriented Pacific Rim. The film feels like the most Del Toro movie the famed director has made in Hollywood, a dark beast that has more going on than any genre trappings would suggest, and which comes closest to recalling his Spanish language works Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.

Although he has made some brilliant English language productions, they have been mostly in the realm of comic book adaptations (Blade II, Hellboy, Hellboy II:The Golden Army) and action spectaculars (Pacific Rim). Crimson Peak feels more at home with what we expect from Del Toro, and given its emphasis on atmosphere, characters and romance, of both the sweet and more sordid side, it feels like it could end up being something of a visual companion piece to his forthcoming The Shape of Water.

Released in an era when the horror genre was going through a period of found footage and filmmaking styles that relied on a plethora of jump scares (admittedly this is a far superior period given that the last trend in Hollywood was for off-putting torture movies such as Hostel and the never-ending Saw sequels), the film is a deliberately old-fashioned affair, relying on star power and great story telling, as well as unsettling twists and turns to make the audience uncomfortable. In fact, the supernatural element almost feels superfluous, with much of the character and plot development being decidedly not supernatural, with murder, sexuality and a “marriage and murder” scheme. The ghosts sometimes are a brilliant slice of set dressing and just adds to the atmospheric intensity and entertainment.

The casting is spot on also; Hiddleston has always had the look of an old-fashioned movie star, with his hearthrob looks but English manner recalling many a international British movie star from the 40’s or 50’s, and he is visually great casting,  as well as delivering the complex characterisation required in his performance as Sir Thomas Sharpe. The film is emotionally anchored to Mia Wasikowska as Edith, and she carries the film magnificently with an incredibly engaging and sympathetic performance, that it’s something of a disappointment that Hollywood doesn’t do more with her. The film is stolen wholesale, however, by Chastain, who dominates the film in the latter stages and who holds the screen in a way that she does brilliantly, with a performance that is both chillingly intense and frighteningly psychotic.

The film is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous genre films that has been released in Hollywood in forever, and even more brilliantly, treats its story, themes and the audience as adults. It is very much an R-rated film, and is charged with unsettling bursts of violence and sexuality that proves brilliantly challenging throughout. It has fallen by the wayside somewhat, but with The Shape of Water proving to be an award winner, hopefully there is coming a time when audiences will rediscover the majesty and horror of Crimson Peak.

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