Guillermo del Toro turns his directorial vision away from laying the groundwork for a mega-franchise back towards a smaller story, this time a homage to Gothic romance. Based on premise alone, you could have counted me in. Thrown in that cast, creepy supernatural elements, and stellar production design, and I’m beyond sold. Crimson Peak is definitely one of my favorite films of2015.
Throughout Crimson Peak, a haunted air of repression and delusion hovers over the characters. This begins from the earliest scenes, which detail Edith’s first brush with ghosts as a young child. The spirit of her mother comes to her with a simple warning, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” We flash-forward, and Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is now a grown woman, a proto-feminist with aspirations of being a Mary Shelley-style writer. Her oddities mocked and derided by other members of New York society, these early scenes play like The Age of Innocence cranked to 11 and a splash of gore and bloodletting thrown in.
Soon, a handsome British baronet (Tom Hiddleston) on the hunt for a wealthy, but expendable, heiress crosses paths with Edith. His sister (Jessica Chastain) hovers in the background, mostly delivering menacing scowls and clenching her jaw, and Edith’s father (Jim Beaver) disapproves of the entire endeavor. It isn’t long before something happens that frees up Edith to runaway with her handsome suitor and travel to the barren countryside with the siblings, but not before one last warning from the ghost of her mother. Edith should have listened to her mother, as the siblings live on a plot of land dubbed Crimson Peak by the locals for the way the red clay bleeds through the floorboards and snow.
Everything that makes a Gothic romance novel can be found here, and delivered with an eccentric flourish. Guillermo del Toro makes films that are more like extended love letters to his obsessions, he less of a director and more of a madman conjuring up poetic hallucinations to play before your eyes. Crimson Peak owes as much to Edgar Allen Poe as it does the films of Mario Bava and Hammer Studios.
As I mentioned, there’s a haunted nature to the film, with repressed secrets, emotions and dreams weighing over the characters heads. The brother and sister are clearly stunted and twisted individuals, and as the film spirals towards some inevitable and disturbed reveals, the suppression and delusion that has haunted them begins to speak to Edith. Quite literally, as their dead mother warns Edith to be wary of them, and to flee. Other ghosts materialize, and with them more secrets are revealed. We begin to almost pity the emotionally damaged siblings as their monstrous nature is explained, but never forgiven.
I never said the film was subtle, and the melodramatic plot points do threaten to collapse the whole thing, but everyone is committed. Hiddleston does fine work, but Wasikowska and Chastain easily outshine him. Hiddleston's greatest performances use his aristocratic carriage and handsome looks to mask a smarmy or sleazy core. This aspect of him is used to maximum effect, and he essays his character's journey with ease. But the girls get the better parts. Edith may be virginal and naïve in some aspects, but she’s smart, resourceful, inquisitive and brave. It’s refreshing to see a character like hers that could so easily be turned into a hapless damsel-in-distress but never actually does.
Crimson Peak belongs to Chastain, in some way varied ways. The house and her character are a part of the long tradition of Gothic literature in which the two are intertwined and symbolic of each other. She is its primary keeper, yet she is also entombed by it. The specters of the house and its various problems are hers, and Chastain goes full-throttle into her villainess. If I had my way, she’d finally get the Oscar for her scenery-chewing sociopathic noblewoman. Her character is alternately the most pitiable and scary, a recognizable victim of abuse and neglect that turned those scars inward and outward, repeating the cycles of abuse on herself and anyone that comes within her circle.
What I most adore about del Toro’s fantasies is how they locate themselves within a recognizable world, and don’t stick the darkness, war, and gore on the outskirts. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone confront these images and themes head-on, and Crimson Peak indulges the fantastical as much as those films, but also presents a clearly recognizable proxy for our real world. There’s no pure escapism in his fairy tales and ghost stories, and if they lack subtlety in their metaphors and imagery, I can easily forgive it. At his best, he makes art films which include these various interests as springboards for ornate costuming, beautiful and disturbing imagery, and great performances.