By James Hancock October 13th, 2015
Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, the gothic romance Crimson Peak, is the type of spectacularly ambitious but messy film that when it works will absolutely delight del Toro’s hardcore fans (I am one of them) but when it doesn’t will unfortunately furnish ammunition to Del Toro’s detractors. I’m not trying to diminish anyone’s excitement for the movie and for the record I had an absolute blast watching Crimson Peak. Although technically not a horror movie, the film features several jaw-dropping sequences of terrifying beauty that are some of the finest scenes of Del Toro’s career. But there are times where the attempts to capture the flavor of 19th century Victorian gothic fiction (a literary period del Toro adores) feel clumsy and awkward. Some of the supporting cast is not quite up to the challenge of doing a period drama and their ham-fisted delivery of the dialogue occasionally earned unintentional laughs from the audience. So it is fair to say that Crimson Peak is not a perfect film nor would I place it on the same level as my favorite movie by Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). That said I am sure I will be seeing this movie again before the weekend is over. When it comes to the fantastic and the horrific, Guillermo del Toro’s heart is always in the right place. His personal museum, Bleak House, is a monument to everything I love about film, mythology, comic books, art and literature. So even when del Toro fails to hit the bullseye with his films, I’m always guaranteed to be immersed in a supernatural universe unlike anything being imagined by any other filmmaker working today.
The story of Crimson Peak is relatively simple but one with a lot of depth and mystery lurking underneath. Mia Wasikowska plays a young American author who has always known that ghosts are real ever since her mother’s ghost shortly after her death came to warn Mia about the Crimson Peak. Mia’s character grows up to be an aspiring author with a flare for gothic fiction and ghost stories. She falls in love when Thomas and Lucille Sharpe, inseparable siblings played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, come to America seeking investors in Hiddleston’s new method of mining the rich red clay found on their family estate back in England. Mia’s father is a wealthy industrialist and self-made man and he takes an instant disliking to the Sharpes, a feeling that is compounded when his private investigator digs up some dirt on their background. When Mia’s father is savagely murdered, Mia’s finds comfort in the arms of Tom Hiddleston and agrees to move to his mansion in England while her lawyers work out the details freeing up her inheritance to invest in the Sharpe mining operation. If this all sounds like an elaborate scam, your suspicions are correct and Mia soon learns through various spirits haunting the Sharpe ancestral home that Mia is but one of many brides seduced for her fortune and that as soon as her money has been secured she faces an imminent grisly death at the hands of Jessica Chastain.
What I loved most about Crimson Peak is the seamless integration of CGI with practical effects in scenes that will surely go down as some of the most memorable depictions of ghosts in the history of film. Many women have died violently at the hands of Jessica Chastain’s character including her own mother and their spirits linger throughout the home, often revealing themselves in the most horrifying ways imaginable in an effort to warn our protagonist about what fate is in store for her. The house featured in the film is an awe-inspiring feat of production design. I have never seen del Toro’s imagination so completely unrestrained. Perched atop a mountain of clay, the majestic mansion is slowly sinking into the ground resulting in what appears to be blood oozing from orifices throughout the home. An enormous hole in the roof allows leaves, rain and snow to fall inside at all hours making the home almost uninhabitable apart from the few rooms with fireplaces. Giant black moths fly freely throughout the dying mansion and just about every room appears to have been the site of some terrible calamity in the past. Visually the location is stunning. As the house becomes snowbound, the red clay continues to bleed through the snow making the entire exterior resemble the site of a complete massacre, ***spoiler alert*** one that eventually takes place in the epic showdown.
Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain both give the film their all but it is Tom Hiddleston who holds the film together. He is the only actor who genuinely feels up to the task of expressing the gothic side of Victorian England in its full eerie grandeur. I worry that the film’s flaws might cause to the movie to underperform commercially right at a time when del Toro could most use a box office home run. He tried and failed for years to launch a production of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, a project that I desperately want to see him bring to the screen but the break-even performance of the very expensive Pacific Rim (2013) has some of the powers-that-be in Hollywood second guessing Guillermo del Toro’s box office clout. It is my sincere hope that this film makes piles of cash giving del Toro the chance to do whatever he wants in the future. Uneven though it may be, Crimson Peak remains a fascinating throw back to the type of gothic romance that made Hammer Horror and Roger Corman so successful with their horror films in the Sixties. I’m utterly bored with the recycled remakes and torture porn we see far too often in the horror genre these days. Del Toro is one of the only artists working in the horror genre today who wants to explore it to its fullest potential and as long as he is making movies, I’ll support him all the way.
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