Crimson Peak

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Last week I went to a press screening of Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s latest that he always calls “not a horror story but a Gothic romance.”

I doubt anyone who’s never read a single page of Jane Eyre will truly get what that description means. It’s also possible that anyone who ever DID read Jane Eyre might not get what he means by that until they see the movie with their own eyes.

Del Toro made Crimson Peak based on his love of horror, fairy tales and Gothic stories. He went at length describing the differences, according to himself, between these ‘genres’ and how he wanted to mix everything to create a world similar to those from the stories he loved.

“I like how similar fairytales and gothic tales are. There is in fact a fairy tale called Bluebeard’s Wives that is very similar to the tale of Crimson Peak. There is a gothic tale called Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan le Fanu that is comparable too.

Fairy tales, gothic tales and horror are three forms of literature that are very closely related, but they’re not the same. You can have the most horrifying fairy tale and yet some elements define it as a fairy tale, mostly the whimsicality and the fact that the agency is supernatural in a non Judeo-Christian way. It’s elemental- a fairy, a dwarf, an ogre etc. Most of the time, the gothic tale involves romance. And by romance, I don’t just mean a love story, but a longing for a past that is very poetic. Horror always has elements that are different from the other two.

My inspiration was thinking, ‘Can I make a movie that is a mixture of all these things that I love?’”

A lot of titles were mentioned in the press when he taled about Crimson Peak. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (the Hitchcock film version is one of his favorites’) and Wuthering Heights came up a few times, as well as Jane Eyre and Uncle Silas. He also mentioned paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and John Atkinson Grimshaw, as well as ‘Deborah Kerr’s dress from The Innocents‘. If you know what these are, and can imagine them being mixed together with ghastly looking creatures that haunt the corridors at night, then you’ve pretty much managed to picture Crimson Peak inside your head.

In a lot of ways, this movie is GdT’s most straightforward. There’s no obfuscation between what’s real and what’s a dream, definitely no blurring of the line the way Pan’s Labyrinthdid with Ofelia’s realities. Mostly, it’s because the heroine’s voice in the narrative is strong enough to make us believe in that line she keeps saying: “Ghosts are real.” Mia Wasikowska is a strong performer and she plays her young aspiring writer character, Edith, with such conviction. So what she believes is what we believe. At least, for me, that’s what I believe.

But it’s also straightforward in a way that the story progresses from point A to point B in a relatively twist-less manner. I like a good twist in the plot as much as the next thriller watcher, but the story doesn’t really need it. That’s not to say that there’s no shocker along the way, though. The ghosts are scary enough to keep us on the edge of whatever surface we’re sitting on. But it’s worth it to keep our eyes open after the first two scares because no one designs ghosts like GdT does. Crimson Peak‘s ghosts are blood red, thanks to the red clay the house the protagonists’ house stands on, and so you get something that you’ve never seen before. Translucent spectres… but vividly crimson. If a scaredy cat like me can keep her eyes open during the ‘hauntings’, then many braver souls will indeed enjoy the spectral spectacle.

Ultimately what GdT does with his story (the script is co-written with Matthew Robbins) is to show that humans are far more terrible creatures than restless spirits.

Tom Hiddleston’s Thomas Sharpe, while not entirely despicable, is the kind of man you wish you’d never met. He’s right there with Rochester, although his “ribcage-to-ribcage monologue” doesn’t come off quite as sincere or powerful as Charlotte Brontë’s leading man. There’s still a touch of insincerity and manipulation throughout his performance, so I never knew where I stood with Thomas, and that somehow colored my judgment of Hiddles’ performance. I ended up feeling more of everything for Charlie Hunnam’s Alan. Yes, he’s a straight-up hero, but he’s clever and resourceful. In this bleak story where people do terrible things, I need a character to believe in. So I threw my lot with Alan simply to avoid getting depressed.

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Jessica Chastain, however, steals the show. I’m not a Chastain fangirl but I respect her a lot. She’s a great actress who’s never bored me so far in the films I’ve seen her play in. InCrimson Peak, however, she simply stunned me stupid. Her character, Lucille Sharpe (Thomas’ sister), is very severe right from the start. All dark dresses, straight spine, austere appearance and so on… She’s cold and repressed throughout the movie until she’s not. Then she becomes unhinged. Downright horrifying. I could barely look at her in one scene because she was just too terrifying.

If it were up to me, or if I were Edith, I would burn down the Sharpe’s house, Allerdale Hall. Too many sad things happened and there was too much evil. Of course burning Allerdale Hall down would be a pity (and not to mention, too ‘Rebecca‘ for an ending) because it was very intricately designed.

Other than having to be built on set because no real life building matched GdT’s idea of it, and had to be large enough so they could shoot it from room to room in continuit, the level of detail in the decoration is staggering. GdT is said to be so specific that he wanted Bradbury & Bradbury wallpapers that set decorator Shane Vieau had to hunt down, along with other items of period furniture and décor. The end result looks fantastic on screen: so atmospheric, everything feels intense.

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Perhaps Crimson Peak is a classic case of the phrase “style over substance”. Maybe people we don’t need a rehash of horror version of Jane Eyre or the like. And while this film does echo some elements of Pan’s Labyrinth (and, in some parts, The Devil’s Backbone) it still doesn’t come close to matching Pan‘s absolute brilliance of mixing war, mythology, realism and fantasy.

The fact remains, though, that I sighed over the beauty of the visuals and the grandness of the scale – wishing that I could be a visionary filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro. In an era where the cinema is filled with superheroes, robots and dinosaurs, sometimes it’s a great idea to remind ourselves that excitement and entertainment can also be found in a love story full of ghosts in it. It’s like reading your favorite classic novel: you know how the story ends, but the story is no less thrilling to follow.

Sigh.

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