We had to wait quite some time for Guillermo del Toro, one of the masters of modern Gothic cinema, to fully return to a genre that in his Spanish-language films made his name. Crimson Peak sees the big man head back to his roots, delivering an incredibly seductive piece of romantic horror which owes a debt to Shelley, to Gothic tradition, and indeed to early expressionism, but equally to del Toro himself.
Yet if the expectation is another Pan’s Labyrinth, a fusion of dark fantasy with a heartfelt narrative, Crimson Peak may surprise. It’s a macabre confection that looks, frankly, incredible; his set design for the towering Allerdale Hall, is stunning. As a piece of art, del Toro has perhaps never delivered anything so stunning, so beautiful, so evocative and so perfect in terms of its narrative context. If everything else surrounding how visually arresting the picture is had matched that power or majesty, this could have ended up at the very least del Toro’s masterpiece, perhaps even one of the great pieces of Gothic romantic horror. Alas… it never quite gets there.
Since the project was first talked up, del Toro had presented the piece as a ghost story but in truth the monsters here are very much man-made, with the spectres far more in the background of Edith Cushing’s journey than directly playing a part. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith as slightly anachronistic; she’s a typical Victorian woman in many respects in post-colonial America, but she has ambitions to be a writer of ghost stories, following real life hauntings by her mother as a child warning her to beware the titular ‘crimson peak’. Edith has a reserve of inner strength and ambition but nonetheless is browbeaten by the sexism of the age, a world where women are supposed to know their place, and to a degree she does; respecting her industrialist father (nice to see Jim Beaver here, in a solid role) and swooning in the presence of Tom Hiddleston’s aristocratic baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe.
In the traditional vein of Gothic romanticism, he is a Rochester-like epitome of the dream man who retains a dark secret, and it’s perfect for Hiddleston, an actor who can switch from charming to sinister with a gleam in his eye and not a step missed. Yet strangely the passion between he and Wasikowska, that chemistry, doesn’t seem to be there, perhaps equally a fault of the script which doesn’t give the romance between Edith & Thomas time enough to grow in order for the second half of the picture, inside Allerdale, to truly feel earned. If the film has a major weak link, it’s in del Toro & Matthew Robbins’ words.
Oddly enough however, some of the more effective moments in which the horror and the dripping, creeping moments of terror appear are in the first half, most of which sets the scene for how Edith ends up facing the peak of crimson itself; the moment, early on, where she faces the wispy, black, torturous spectral form of her mother is terrifying. Once we arrive at Allerdale, del Toro delivers a few more of these spectres, all in a mix of black and crimson, but the true monster lies in Sharpe’s sister, Lady Lucille, played with icy British disdain by Jessica Chastain, and as the piece ramps toward its conclusion, the film belongs to her.
If Wasikowska lacks bite and Hiddleston’s character wobbles about too heavily in terms of motivations, it’s Chastain who holds the character centre; Lucille is a disturbed, psychologically scarred and often terrifying human spectre who plagues Allerdale far more than the ghostly creatures that do, few and far between, show up. Though del Toro can’t help in the finale giving way to melodramatic histrionics, after spending much of the piece amping up the tension and claustrophobia within the snowed-in, chilly Allerdale, it’s earned for Chastain alone.
Beyond that, if you look past the struggles of a narrative which at times clunks itself together to keep moving, you can just let yourself be overawed by the visual majesty of it all; it’s no understatement, but Allerdale is truly remarkable in its design, style, look and attention to detail – you just want to go into the film and wander around. Never has del Toro made more of a darkly colourful, richly textured piece of cinema; the stark blend of white on red, shadows amidst eerie blue natural light, the soft glow of orange – colour is everywhere and it’s a refreshing change from the glut of stark, colour-drenched, in your face horror we’re often today presented with. This is majestic, elegant and of a different age.
That, indeed, is why Crimson Peak will be remembered. Not as Guillermo del Toro’s best picture (because it isn’t), not as a genuinely great piece of Gothic romanticism or horror (because it’s not), but rather because it’s a classically designed, sumptuous piece of art wrapped up in a cinematic confection, one which harks back to a grander, more operatic style that wraps you up and delivers a feast for the eyes and senses. It has problems with the script, with certain character arcs, a few performances and ultimately the narrative itself, but all of that can almost be forgiven for being able to drink the whole piece in.
This is, of course, a re-release from Arrow Video and it comes loaded for bear with some impressive extras. A commentary with Del Toro himself; a brand new feature-length making of documentary called ‘The House is Alive’ which really digs under the fingernails of the production; a brace of featurettes; a piece by horror writer Kim Newman on the Gothic traditions Crimson Peak taps into; and much more. They’ve really pushed the boat out for this one.
A fine release for a flawed but gorgeous piece of cinema.
Crimson Peak is now available from Arrow Video.