Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Writers: Guillermo Del Toro & Matthew Robbins
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam.
Guillermo Del Toro is back and has directed the gothic fairy tale we didn’t know we wanted but now realize we desperately needed. The marketing for this film is misleading. Based on previews, it is clear that the studio wants audiences to believe that this film is a horror and that it’s really scary. I read a couple of reviews after watching the film on opening night and noticed that several reviewers were lamenting the lack of scares and frights. I can understand that based on the hype and the marketing one would expect that sort of experience when walking into the theater, but if that is still a complaint after having watched the film that I suspect that enough attention was not paid to what the film was actually trying to do. That is not to say that there aren’t moments of suspense or even some horrific images, but it’s not really what the movie is ultimately trying to accomplish. I, for one, enjoyed this film immensely! I loved every minute of it and consider this film an utter success.
Crimson Peak takes place sometime between the late 19th century and the very beginnings of the 20th. The story opens with a brief scene indicating the trouble that will eventually arrive, but quickly shifts to Buffalo, New York and the movements of what is still a fledgling city. Del Toro and his team must be admired for how much attention to detail was paid when reconstructing the city, from the set design to even the unpaved mud-caked streets. Edith Cushing, played by the frail-looking and waif-like Mia Wasikowska (finally in a role that she can sink her teeth into and pokes fun at the ways she’s been pigeonholed), is a young woman who likes to write stories with ghosts in them -not ghost stories- and admires more the Mary Shelleys of the world over the Jane Austens. She is pined over by the strapping and good-looking Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), but her dreams and goals take precedence over any romantic entanglement. Until the arrival of the mysterious Sir Thomas Sharpe, that is.
Tom Hiddleston plays Sharpe, a nobleman from the United Kingdom who is in the States attempting to secure finances to support his estate. He is accompanied on his trip by his intimidating and inscrutable sister Lady Lucille (played with scenery-chewing glee by an over the top and loving it Jessica Chastain). Once Sharpe sets his eyes on Edith the spark is immediate and after a tragedy that befalls the young woman, the two marry and move to the siblings’ estate back in England. This is where things get spooky. The house is kinda haunted and my, what a house it is.
It is astounding how much work went into the construction of the Allerdale estate. From the clay grounds, which provide the entire location with a barren atmosphere, to the decrepit unraveling of the home, each set piece (house included) was built specifically for this film, and it shows. There is beauty and horror in every scene. The colors, from the beautiful costumes to all of the fixtures, are doused in acidic and stringent colors – reminding the viewer of the Baroque paintings of Caravaggio or Gentileschi. Visually the film is obviously influenced heavily by Mario Bava’s 60’s horror movies. Kill, Baby, Kill especially comes to mind. The films weren’t terrifying, but the building of suspense and an impending feeling of doom are clearly elements that inspired Del Toro in his filming of this movie.
I used the term fairy tale at the beginning of this review for a reason. Del Toro spent a lot of time looking to the past in this project and this film works as a homage to the storytellers that have come before him. In addition to Bava, Poe also serves as an influence, and especially The Fall of the House of Usher is continuously alluded to. From the house that is slowly decaying to the bizarre nature of the brother-sister relationship in the film, Poe is an overwhelming presence. By far, though, the biggest influence on the movie is Charles Perrault and his story Bluebeard (La Barbe Bleue). As soon as Edith arrives at Allerdale I began to notice these connections, and the more the story progressed the more they became obvious. Del Toro subverts the story quite a bit, adding in a welcome female empowering slant (possibly influenced by Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber).
The story has also a surprising amount of fun and often I was chuckling out loud. There is a bit of a camp element without going over the top. The laughs are deliberate, but you are laughing with the filmmakers, not at them. If the intent of the film goes for scares then this isn’t really accomplished – the scenes of horror are more gross than they are frightening – but I didn’t mind at all. The film took me for a ride and I enjoyed every moment of it. This film was a success and it is clear from his work on Pan’s Labyrinth, that when he works with fairytales and gothicism, Del Toro is in his element and has the most fun and showcases the most creativity. He should make films like these more often. I am one person who would always purchase a ticket.