“Ghosts are real — that much I know.”
Few filmmakers wear their hearts on their sleeve as transparently as Guillermo Del Toro and even fewer filmmakers consistently bleed for their work. But blood for Del Toro, both as a visual motif and a physical property, is as pure as an exhale. It’s the inner merging with the outer in a sort of vulnerable embrace. All of Del Toro’s protagonists bleed. Bleeding is a right of passage- a coming of age in which they’re forced to shed their handmade fortifications and allow the unknown to take root. This fledgling innocence would be prone to cynicism in lesser hands but Del Toro’s films celebrate naivety as a necessary part of the transformation cycle. Although, it’s when blood is spilt out of malice – that it stains this world and the next. Crimson Peak is very much a story built on stained ground, simultaneously haunted by the past as much as it is by the impending future.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is subject to that haunted past when the specter of her recently deceased mother visits her to issue a warning: “Beware of Crimson Peak”. This phrase means little until she catches the attention of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a visiting Baronet with his eye on funding from Edith’s industrialist father. While Edith’s attention is firmly on her budding writing career- much to the dismay of eager suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunham)- it’s not long before Sharpe’s intense persona draws her to him. Though their relationship is frowned upon by Thomas’ sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), eventually a deal is struck between the siblings and Edith is whisked away to the Sharpe’s childhood home in England. It’s here in the decaying family mansion, built on a bed of deep red clay, that Edith learns she has finally come to the “Crimson Peak” and that it is far too late to heed her mother’s final warning.
While Crimson Peak is indeed cloaked in classic Gothic horror it’s been said more than once that this isn’t a ghost story- but rather a story with ghosts in it. Despite their ghastly presence the narrative at the film’s heart is in fact an exploration of love. How it springs forth from curiosity and from neglect, how time can temper it, and how it can poison us if harbored too deeply. All of our leads find themselves on different levels of this spectrum, each afflicted by a fear that paralyzes them into inaction. Until ultimately, it’s that very fear that reveals their love’s true manifestation- be it wings or a slick cocoon.
The central performances by Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, all do their very best to realize the tumult and melodrama in an authentic manner. The dialogue is delivered with the appropriate pangs, highlighting the period and all its aches. And each character feels steeped in their personal histories, still lingering heavily over their every action. They haunt the halls as much as the ghosts, and each performance eventually leaves a mark.
Del Toro’s works live and breath in the details, from the mechanical trinkets and water stained murals to the murky basements and creatures both large and small. Crimson Peak is no different and is easily one of Del Toro’s most decadent and visually dense films to date. It takes place at the turn of the century and adopts the visual identity of the period with ease. Here there is more truth spoken from the character’s clothing than there is from their mouths. Scenes outdoors take on a pale yellow hue like that an old faded photograph. But nothing ranks above the titular mansion during the second half of the film, a dank and disturbing visual oasis that dares you to look away. Del Toro, true to form, actually constructed the behemoth so that it would assume an authentic character in the film. It’s an overwhelming success, whose every room feels uniquely like a love letter to a bygone era draped in ornate splendor.
While the narrative of Crimson Peak could be likened to a more complex meditation of what Del Toro achieved in Pacific Rim, visually, it finds symmetry with his previous films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. There are several cues to these past films, some acting as direct callbacks and others continuing Del Toro’s brand of symbolism. Specifically insects, which find a welcome home in Crimson Peak. They’re fragile and unassuming. They commune with the worlds of the large and small and seem the most affected by temporal energies. Feeding off these energies they foreshadow events to come and then claim the ruins left in their wake.
Unfortunately not all the visuals are built equally. While the CGI enhanced ghosts (originally actors with prosthetic make-up) fare well enough, it was some of the added digital elements in the background that were distracting. These were mostly small details, magnified by the wealth of real sets and set pieces. The biggest detractor is cinematographer Dan Lausten. His tight framing for close-ups felt like a modern flourish and constantly cut off the necessary scenery around it. It felt constricting, but not in an appropriately claustrophobic way. This uneven work then led to some odd and rushed transitions that make the first act feel breakneck in speed. Luckily no matter where the camera is pointed there’s something to marvel at, making Lausten’s blunders feel less prominent.
Despite these hiccups, as a whole, Crimson Peak delivers the indulgent experience Del Toro has been outlining in the years leading up to its release. From its overflowing visuals to the tragedy at its center, Del Toro has let loose a beautiful film that celebrates fear’s role in passion. It’s hard not to be drawn to it like a moth to a flame, leeching its perilous warmth while the wind howls outside. There’s a timeless quality to its construction like one of those faded photographs, or a clock whose bell still tolls behind an aged face. It will remain because despite every warning sign, every call to turn back- we will fall prey to its seduction.
Crimson Peak was released in theaters on October 16th, 2015.