Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #462
Number of Views: One
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Country of Origin: United States, Canada
Box Office: $69,400,000
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Producer: Guillermo del Toro, Callum Greene, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Special Effects: Michael Innanen
Visual Effects: Dennis Berardi
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Score: Fernando Velázquez
Editing: Bernat Vilaplana
Studio: Legendary Pictures, DDY
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts, Alec Stockwell, Brigitte Robinson, Gillian Ferrier, Tamara Hope, Kimberly-Sue Murray, Sofia Wells
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Fernando Velázquez “Crimson Peak”
 PJ Harvey “Red Right Hand”
A new film by Guillermo del Toro is always a fascinating proposition. Since learning the craft of make-up effects from Dick Smith during The Exorcist, the Mexican filmmaker has been responsible for some truly breathtaking pieces of cinema. Traditionally, his movies fall into two distinct categories: big budget blockbusters replete with bells and whistles and small personal projects which speak to us one to one. Of all his works, it is those falling into the latter category that interest me most. For as much as Hellboy, Blade II, and Pacific Rim are all unquestionable in quality, it’s Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth which tell us the most about this man and his personal fears. He works on the assumption that what he finds scary, we’ll find scary too and, more often than not, he’s bang on the money.
Crimson Peak represents the closest he has come to merging the two together. With a luxurious $55 million investment at his disposal and a screenplay originally devised with fellow screenwriter Matthew Robbins almost a decade prior, he tells a small intimate ghost story but does so with a much larger blank canvas than has been customary previously. There can be no quibbling about where the money is as the production design here is truly worthy of Oscar. For the most part, the film is shot in one location, and rarely will you have seen a Gothic mansion so stately. Make no mistake, this is an eye-bleedingly gorgeous piece of art and horror aficionados are seldom afforded such an embarrassment of riches as optical bargaining tool.
Influenced by all manner of films from The Haunting and The Innocents to The Omen, The Shining, and even The Exorcist itself, and owing just as much to Hammer and Amicus, he is keen to point out that Crimson Peak isn’t actually a horror film at all. Gothic romance is his preferred term and, having spent just shy of two hours in its company, I’m inclined to agree. There are elements of horror littered right through but, when you strip it to its bones, it’s more of a love story than anything else. Fifty Shades of Crimson if you wish. It is vital that we make any readjustments before viewing as it’s not all about the goosebumps. Granted, he will attempt to chill us to our very marrow and will, on the odd occasion, succeed effortlessly. But Cupid is already in position and looking to shoot that poison arrow while we take in the wintery sights with wide-eyed wonderment.
Visually, the influence of Mario Bava is clear and it evokes a similar level of distress as Beyond the Door II which frightened me out of my casing as a ten-year-old boy and still haunts my phantasms regularly four decades on. However, this is nowhere near as unnerving a fable and is very much aware that it’s playing to packed out auditoriums. With recognizable stars such as Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, and Jessica Chastain huddled together around the fire whilst fending off pneumonia, del Toro has some of the safest hands that money can buy to entrust with our hopes and fears.
Wasikowska plays aspiring author Edith Cushing, heiress to her father’s fortune, and unquestionably daddy’s little girl. When English aristocrat cum inventor Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) starts sniffing around for an investment, she soon becomes intoxicated by his encouragement with regards to her work and falls for him headlong, much to her pops’ displeasure. He spots the scam from a mile off and intervenes to ensure that Sharpe and his sibling Lady Lucille (Chastain) politely adjourn themselves from America. For every action there’s a reaction and Crimson Peak has itself a doozy. The moment when Carter (Jim Beaver) learns not to meddle in his daughter’s affairs calls to mind a certain gut-wrenching scene in Pan’s Labyrinth and is perhaps even more mortifying.
With papa no longer preaching, Edith is free to be whisked away to La Isla Bonita…well…Cumberland, England in the bracing midwinter anyhoots and the pair exchange vows before she is shown to her new quarters. Allerdale Hall is what I like to refer to as a fixer-upper. While grandiose it most certainly is, termites were a bitch in the early twentieth century, and it is in dire need of a little renovation. The decrepit mansion is a character all by itself and del Toro sinks a large portion of his budget into making it homely.
“A house as old as this one becomes, in time, a living thing. It starts holding onto things… keeping them alive when they shouldn’t be. Some of them are good; some of them bad… Some should never be spoken about again.”
Of course, over the years, it is only natural that a build like this will develop its own exclusive personality. Every creak and groan communicates and director of photography Dan Laustsen fills in admirably for long-time collaborator Guillermo Navarro, capturing all of its expressive charm beautifully and working with del Toro to seduce our retinas at every conceivable turn. The dynamic between bride, groom, and live-in sister is intriguing and all three players are excellent across the board. The roles of Edith and Thomas almost fell to Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Stone but, on this occasion, I believe that scheduling conflicts were destined for a reason. They sell their affection and there can be no denying that it’s mutual, despite us knowing perhaps a little too much of Sharpe’s intentions.
For me, this is where Crimson Peak falls short of bona fide greatness. While I understand that del Toro’s is, by his own admission, a romance and not a horror as it has appeared in the measured build up to its release, the whole affair lacks a dash of mystery which would have elevated it into the uppermost tier. When you strip away the $55 million investment and take a closer look at its foundations, it’s a simple tale with modest aspirations. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing as del Toro’s best works have arguably been of similar origins but fear isn’t anywhere near as prominent as suggested early on and some may take exception to that decision.
The relationship between brother and sister is gloriously complex and both actors invest fully while Wasikowska is suitably befuddled and wanders about in her long flowing gown, clutching her candelabra with trepidation. The more she learns about the deception, the more accessible she becomes, as she’s the very last to know on this occasion. Her plight becomes ours also and this is great credit to the Australian actress and proof that a distinguished career lies ahead. We pray for her safekeeping and it appears as though tragedy is only ever a footstep away.
Thankfully, childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) has been keeping a close eye on proceedings from the other side of the Atlantic and senses that Edith may be in a spot of hot water. I always regarded Scatman Crowthers as a personal Jesus for making the treacherous trip to save Jack Torrance from shacking up in Room 237. When you think about it, he had a snow plough and a far shorter journey than McMichael thus the good doctor has a far larger set of testicles to battle such elements on a whim. Just like Dick, his welcomes isn’t quite as warm as he was hoping but his attendance perks things up considerably in time for the final act.
By this point, nothing about Crimson Peak is particularly scary per se. If we’ve been paying attention then we will be more than aware that the only chills are coming from Jack Frost as he weaves about whistling his bleak intent. I reiterate that this is not a negative but it does make primary viewing a little less involving than we’d hoped. Pan’s Labyrinth gave my goosebumps their own goosebumps and del Toro achieves this effortlessly when he’s in the right mood. Here, it isn’t what he’s driving at and, ironically, it all feels a little cold if truth be known. I wouldn’t be so foolish as to suggest that it doesn’t possess a soul but lasting impressions are scant and no amount of money can atone for that.
It feels like a rather sombre note to finish on as, at the close of 2015, Crimson Peak will invariably make most annual top ten lists, mine inclusive. Technically it is truly a thing of great marvel and confirms del Toro as one of the most majestic filmmakers on the worldwide circuit, no question. However, when all is said and done, it’s not nearly as enigmatic a beast as we know he is capable of. It remains to be seen whether Pan’s Labyrinth will provide this man’s enduring legacy but, if this is him on an off day, then I still believe wholeheartedly that the true veal is yet to come.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Don’t be fooled by the middling rating for grue, Crimson Peak contains moments of harsh violence which most would only dream about including in a R-rated feature. Two moments of brutality stand out, in particular, a basin based head pummeling which shies away from absolutely nothing. If you’re looking for injury detail then look absolutely no further although I can’t guarantee you won’t be looking away in abject horror. The practical effects here implemented by Michael Innanen are the best that money can buy and no parting screen shot could ever hope to do them justice.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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