Posted by : Patrick | October 20, 2015
“Ghosts are real”, proclaims the heroine of Guillermo del Toro’s latest macabre vision, Crimson Peak; “I’ve seen them”. Well, now I’ve seen them too, and while they play the part of oozing, drippy shades with the usual repertoire of shock musical cues and jump scare editing, they feel like an afterthought, an unnecessary and decidedly unreal computer-generated spectral presence out of place in the beauty of the mesmerizing physical real world that the imaginative director has put on display. In fact, Crimson Peak‘s barebones story could have easily sufficed without them, and perhaps even been scarier for it, but it remains rich, gooey entertainment nonetheless that should satisfy as a nice Halloween treat.
Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a young upper class woman in the late 19th century with aspirations of becoming a writer along the lines of Mary Shelley, who “died a widow”. As a woman in this period, she has encountered difficulty finding a publisher for her ghost stories, with editors’ suggestions of adding a romantic aspect met with disinterest and integrity. I am in complete agreement with Edith on this one, and when handsome Englishman Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) shows up at her father’s business seeking investments for his mining venture, I secretly hoped del Toro was only teasing. But that was not meant to be, and so the courtship begins. This does not please Edith’s gruff father, who for various reasons does not take a shine to the new suitor, but it turns out Thomas has ways of getting what he wants. Eventually Edith, Thomas, and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), are on their to merry old England, to a dilapidated estate founded upon red clay, the nearest signs of life a long ways from home. There Edith will discover what is really going on among those hills the locals refer to as Crimson Peak.
While certainly being advertised as a haunted house movie, Crimson Peak takes a surprising amount of time to get to the location of its spirit-filled hallways, but then unfortunately does very little with them. This does mitigate the effectiveness of the haunting, as it never quite develops enough to have an impact, but in the end this actually doesn’t feel like a bad thing. For one, there really is very little interesting story actually going on in this movie to begin with. It’s pretty cut-and-dry stuff, no shades of grey to speak of. What bony plot there is telegraphs its intentions well in advance, effectively killing off any mystery or suspense the basic elements might have created. Thus, what does it matter whether we’re at the house or back in the States? There really isn’t a high gear for Crimson Peak to kick into. We watch people do things, occasionally get fed a bit of info, see some ghosts, observe the acting out of what we already suspected was going to take place, and then the movie is over. Digging into the twisted human history of Allerdale Hall could’ve been interesting, but don’t mistake this for too much negativity; there’s really plenty to enjoy here, and the realization after thirty minutes or so that nothing much has happened quickly begat the realization that I didn’t care; this was still fun.
The reason for this is that the real star of the show has nothing to do with the spooky tale, but with the way in which it is told, and that way is absolutely enthralling. Crimson Peak lures the audience in not with the phantasmal, but with tangible objects and sets that actually exist, that have texture and color, that make natural sounds. Nearly every frame is a joy to soak in, from the polish of high society to the splintered wood and hoary fields of the English mansion and its grounds. I wanted to reach out and wrap my fingers around one of the glowing orange candles, or rattle the tarnished metal skeleton keys off their ring. Better yet, I could’ve been enveloped by the entire world, a warm blanket on a snowy night, its deep reds and earthy browns never far from the cold dark of the labyrinthine hallways, or even the white of oncoming winter. While not necessarily a bloody film, other than in a few moments, there is abundant amount of sloppy stuff of various viscosities to steadily provide the implication. Pictures have always been del Toro’s specialty, and while I haven’t necessarily bonded with his films in the past because of a perceived style over substance (which this definitely is), it not only didn’t bother me in Crimson Peak, but actually allowed me to absorb even more what he and cinematographer Dan Laustsen have captured, instead of wading through mediocre exposition for glimpses of the fantastic.
The cast also supports this aesthetic, their pale skin off-setting ruby lips, and the contrast between the darker hair and gazes of the siblings vs. Edith’s strawberry blonde distinguishes the sinister from the ethereal. Hiddleston and Wasikowska are great with their formal, stilted dialogue, corseted by their positions in the world, but it’s Chastain who seems ready to burst through, in a menacingly fun performance, perfectly well-behaved on the surface only. The whole thing is a sumptuous feast, and not only in sights, but sounds as well. Creaks, rasps, thumps, splats all mix into a swirl of soothing audible candy that lulls one into a false sense of security, so crisp and layered, until the inevitable musical sting that beats you over the head.
Whether this is enough for you is a matter of taste, but there’s no question that this is my favorite del Toro film so far, playing to his art design strengths and supplying only the bare minimum of storytelling necessary to get from shot to shot. By relying on tactile means instead of a spate of cartoonish effects, he delivers a spooky atmosphere, despite restraining the ghost aspect to the point of being nonessential. With Crimson Peak, looks aren’t everything, but often they’re enough.
My Rating: 3 out of 4