Ghosts, bloodshed, and gothic romance in ‘Crimson Peak’
Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film is a very old-fashioned ghost story, albeit with a modern sense of bloodletting. “Crimson Peak” is a fairly perfect fit for Halloween, equal parts tense chiller and delectably intentional melodrama. It’s also one of the most beautiful looking films you’ll see this year.
We follow young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an idealistic writer who is swept up in a whirlwind romance by Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Being the end of the Victorian era, he whisks her away to his lonely mansion on a windswept hill. They are joined by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and a bevy of ghosts with dire warnings.
Del Toro’s critically lauded for his quieter, profoundly haunting Spanish-language films such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” He’s loved by audiences for zanier, louder English-language endeavors like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy.”
Few directors can successfully make films across such wildly different genres. To which does the English-language “Crimson Peak” belong? It’s altogether something different, neither quiet and meditative like his smaller films nor brash and cheeky in the same way his big-budget fare is. Instead, Del Toro has crafted a riff on Gothic romances like “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca.”
“Crimson Peak” treads increasingly into that genre’s deliberately melodramatic mood, while dressing everything as if Edgar Allan Poe had imagined the sets into existence. “Crimson Peak” is scary, yes, but it’s not interested in the overwhelming terror of which Del Toro is capable. Instead, mystery and atmosphere are front and center. While all of Del Toro’s films have enjoyed fantastic designs and incredible atmosphere, “Crimson Peak” reaches even greater heights of macabre beauty.
All that said, this is a very particular kind of movie. It has the same fun with its material as “Pacific Rim,” but instead of riffing on the giant robot movies we know all too well by this point, he’s riffing on Gothic romance fiction. It’s not territory that will seem as fresh in most viewers’ minds, but if you’re willing to go along with Del Toro, this is his best job yet of treating genre as his playground.
To understand the movie is to understand Chastain’s role as Lucille. You may recognize Chastain as the lead in “Zero Dark Thirty” or Matt Damon’s best chance at rescue in “The Martian.” Whichever way, she’s something altogether different here. Her very first scene, Lucille is introduced playing the piano. Her fingers dance across the ivories with both a practiced skill and a flexed rigidity. The camera travels up the back of her dress, not evocatively, but to show that the design on its back resembles a velvet vertebrae.
This is the level on which “Crimson Peak” works. Every scene holds a new detail if you’re paying close enough attention. Every piece of design and every edit hints at something crucial. Even the lighting in a painting quickly glanced can tell you whom to trust. The design is stellar in how it’s all put together to subtly direct the viewer. The way it’s filmed understands every nuance of it. You could pick apart certain shots like you would paintings.
“Crimson Peak” will suffer with viewers somewhat because it’s been advertised as straight-up horror and there isn’t necessarily a large audience with a well of knowledge regarding Gothic romance. That’s really how you might best enjoy the film, recognizing how it exists both inside of and as a commentary on Gothic and Victorian literature. Without that, the film may seem beautiful but outlandish.
In an odd way, “Crimson Peak” feels close kin to Tim Burton’s 1999 take on “Sleepy Hollow.” Both movies are gorgeous to take in, featuring some of the best set and costume design ever put to film. Both are filled with performances that are more clever in their melodrama than seeking to be real, although Chastain’s performance in “Peak” somehow manages to encompass both extremes. “Sleepy Hollow” is more action- and comedy-oriented where “Crimson Peak” is literary-minded. They are both utter joys to watch, but more for the sake of their stunning craft than as complete movies. Suffice to say, I plan to make them into a Halloween double-feature one day.
Three out of four stars. “Crimson Peak” is rated R for its bloodiness, sexual content, and language.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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