Guillermo del Toro is one of the best things to come out of Mexico since rodeo sports. His movies are just plain awesome with a keen respect for the craft of film and storytelling. He is one of few contemporary directors that did not fall into the banality of corporate Hollywood. Like a family friendly Tarantino he venerates movies of the past and assimilates them into a modern context. Blade 2, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Pacific Rim are rife with practical effects, clean shots, and an emphasis on aesthetics in the cinematography. They can be enjoyed for both their beauty and entertainment. Since Pacific Rim I have been anticipating Crimson Peak. Was it another stellar entry or do I have too much faith in del Toro?
Being a director with a wide array of interests, each movie has been different in genre and concept. Pacific Rim was kaiju, Hellboy supernatural action, and Pan’s Labyrinth historical fantasy. Each has little details consistent with del Toro’s love of Lovecraft, gore, Spanish History, and the power of practical effects. Peak is definitely one of his movies, but it also felt the most unlike what I am used to.
In the midst of writing her first book, Edith, played by Mia Wasikowska, meets Thomas, played by Tom Hiddleston, a British socialite seeking money for a mining project. The two eventually marry and travel back to England to stay at Thomas’s mansion on Crimson Peak. It is not long before Edith finds there is more to her new husband and the home they share with his sister Lucille, played by Jessica Chastain.
Peak is a combination of horror, suspense, and mystery in a gothic Victorian setting. It strikes a perfect balance and plays out in a way that one does not overshadow the other. It does suspense the best, as you have no idea what is happening at any one point. The movie tells you everything about the situation and leaves you to form your own conclusions.
Without giving anything away, the revelation was good, but I wish it were more than what I expected. I called it a third of the way through and a part of me assumed it was deliberate, like a red herring. Considering this was from del Toro, I expected to be more surprised by something crazy, yet came from it unfulfilled. I had many ideas for what was probably going on behind the obvious and when it was the opposite, it did not sit well with me. The true reveal is still compelling, but I wanted it to be that and then some.
Peak is del Toro’s attempt at old fashion macabre. He takes the aesthetics and techniques of classic horror like Dracula, Dr. Caligari, House on Haunted Hill, and modernizes them. The most obvious indication is the mansion set. It is as much a character as the actors with a distinct atmosphere that permeates from its mere existence. Its design is deliberately strange and otherworldly with a hall shaped like a keyhole and a foyer that raises four stories with a winding staircase. Above the foyer a hole remains open to the elements, letting in the cold and wet to further damage the interior. The mansion is slowly sinking into the earth as mud seeps between the floorboards and the walls decay without repair. The gothic style is on full display with darkly ornate moldings and castle-like details that reflect the mansion’s storied history.
Color plays a big part in conveying emotion and story by the shade of the area in question. Before going to Crimson Peak, the film is bright gold, a sign of relative happiness. The mansion itself is coated in blues, greys, and white, neutral colors that could mean anything. Above all is the color red, shown brighter than everything else. Its meaning, however, is quite ambiguous and further explanation would give too much away.
The scares are slightly reliant on stings of music when they would have been better served in silence. Some of the stings are the ghosts’ indescribable wailing, but it does not change the fact they are stings. On sheer grotesquery alone the ghosts make for great scares as I learned after the halfway point. There is a shot of a door closing and it is the most unsettling image in the whole movie thanks to the look of the ghost and simple uses of lighting.
Though the mansion is the best character, Chastain carries the entire film. She is at her very best and most terrifying because she does such a good job of hiding it. With expert subtlety she keeps her true motives and emotions out of sight, while appearing earnest and straightforward. She is a bigger mystery than the story itself. Hiddleston and Wasikowska were also great, including Charlie Hunnam in a minor role, but with respect, Chastain surpasses them all.
Crimson Peak is a fine addition to Guillermo del Toro’s varied filmography. It is a beautiful work of art that uses elements of mystery with suspense-driven horror. Though it falters with what could have been, it is a worthy experience. Give del Toro the appreciation he is often denied by seeing his latest work.