Update at bottom
If Guillermo del Toro wallows in garish, ghoulish excess with Crimson Peak, well, ’tis the season. The complaints about Crimson Peak are understandable and, for a demented mind such as his, deserved points of pride. Narrative is well and good, but when Guillermo del Toro has assembled a veritable army of the dead behind the screen to prepare for his dark harvest to escape the reaper of life in the middle of the road, narrative is almost besides the point.
Narrative, then, is not the only body a horror film can exhume. That is, if the film is confident enough, or delirious enough, or entranced enough by the specter of death, to untomb another cadaver besides narrative. Unfortunately, Crimson Peak spends a full third of its run-time in Buffalo, New York excavating for the corpse. The first act of the film is a noble but failed harangue pretending to make the case for ghosts and tapping into the mystique of early Americana mystery, but all del Toro (who not only directs but co-writes with Matthew Robbins) accomplishes is an indifferent slice of early 20th century lifestyle porn. Sufficient atmospherics prop up a bone dry burgeoning romance between Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a wealthy American ghost story author (a del Toro of her day) and Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an aristocrat and struggling inventor of a red clay mining device to harvest the bountiful and bloody clay that lies dormant and entombed under his mansion. Along for the ride is his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (a wonderfully supercilious, dour Jessica Chastain who wields her jagged chin like a serrated knife pointed at the throat of the screen), who grows ever more suspicious as the film waxes toward its own crimson peak.
Narrative, much as he may not admit it, will likely never be del Toro’s strongest suit. Even his most heralded film, Pan’s Labyrinth, suffers from an unnecessarily and adamantly insistent bifurcated narrative structure. Del Toro’s films live their lives most fully when they are intoxicated in their sensual elements and fully entranced in their present tenses. This may sound reductive – the cold iron grip of narrative cinema has done its part to harbor a cruel grudge against experimentation and innovation. But there is a long and cherished history, in horror especially, of pure cinema – of momentary but lasting cinematic signs and wonders – trumping and trouncing the need for narrative, and del Toro is always at his best inviting himself to this particular masquerade ball.
One of the maestros of this filmic form was Mario Bava, a director whose Italian giallo films loom large over Crimson Peak and its refreshing willingness to engage in masturbatory flourishes of bloody, carnal excess. Crimson Peak isn’t quite as unhinged as Bava’s best films; that director managed to not only avoid narrative, but to negate it by inducing his film in a nightmare logic of discontinuity editing that subverted the idea of logical narrative structure at the architectural level. Del Toro doesn’t quite get there; if Bava was a cinematic necromancer at his best, breathing life out of death, success out of adversity, del Toro is just an undertaker, skillfully preserving the dead for the facade of fleeting life. But then, we don’t have many viable cinematic undertakers these days. These are dark times to be a horror fan, and del Toro is doing his part to transform that darkness into a creeping, looming terror, warping a tombstone shadow into a true sinister purpose.
So if Crimson Peak is a touch too anxious to thrill with narrative twists and turns and not nearly as structurally demented as it should be, at least at the level of raw cinematic girders, del Toro has nonetheless assembled a graveyard train of gallows sensual pleasures. Dan Lausten remains a perpetually underrated cinematographer, largely because he is tempered by insipid productions, and when the film transitions to the nether realms of Northern England around the half hour mark, his ego is unleashed with a deathly palette of pallid whites, Gothically industrial blacks, and of course lustrous, wrathful, and envious reds. Even the over-baked golden hues of the early segments are salvaged in Wasikowska’s dress as indicators of alienation in a world elsewhere harshly, monochromatically stripped of the color. The gold sickens before our eyes and curdles in our stomachs.
So Crimson Peak is ripened up but probably not ready for biting into and wallowing in the juice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bask in the sight of it. The cinematography is naturally a paintbrush for mastermind del Toro, but he doesn’t have all the fun. Thomas E. Sanders’ production design is downright heretical, dissecting the necrotic hearts of the characters through the forbidding, arcane, gluttonously empty Crimson Peak mansion, where a gloriously untamed hole dissects the roof and undoes any hope that this location is safe from the earth it tortures. Kate Hawley’s costume design is not only visceral and phantasmagorically baroque, but baked into characters who wear their hearts, and their veins, on their sleeves. The demented creaks and howls of the sound design are other tentacled specters that scratch at your back like so many tangled nerves writhing about. That the film has actually tapped into the lost tradition of transmuting the clamorous terrors of industrial revolution mechanical melancholy in filmic form is a little pinch of dark magic.
A lusciously evil film, then, when it wants to be. A pity about that first third where it forgets its true dreams, or invalidly quests for others. Pity too about del Toro’s belabored refrains to ghostly happenings and spectral unmentionables as metaphors for over-kept secrets and humanly guilt. Skeletons as skeletons in the closet, so to speak, a ham-fisted and arid metaphor that has no business in such an omnipotently gleeful film. Still, when the abominable white of the snow saturates with fiendish, declamatory red, it’s hard not to appreciate and even love the fact that del Toro convinced someone to give him a cool 55 million to make a maximalist Mario Bava film. We still have a few cinematic dreamweavers left it seems, even if this is one nightmare that could be tighter and more diabolical all the same.
Original Score: 7.5/10
Update early-2018: Years, and my distaste for Shape of Water, have not taken kindly to my view of this or any of Del Toro’s “serious” films. Sure, Crimson Peak is a spirited phantasmagoria (pun intended), but the most phantasmic of the film’s realities is the mirage-like nature of its various gothic revival house images. They reverberate with the force of millions spent in computer and practical imagery, but they animate no feelings, radiate no felt force. And the only ideas they house are banally literal, from Del Toro’s frankly adolescent use of symbols to his high-school-lit-mag idiom for gender subversion (which still manages to rely on particularly conservative gender stereotypes). For all its “feminine empowerment,” the film rests on a cloying and cloistered binary of the virginal and the worldly, the ingenue and the beyond-the-grave, and for all Del Toro’s ostensibly playful perversion of the romantic and the heretic, the angelic and the demonic, even the ghoulish and the sublime, his formal manifestations uneasily sit on a screenplay foundation as shaky as the film’s titular house.
While Del Toro’s adoration for past films is endearing, I am not entirely sure if Crimson Peak has conducted more than a cursory survey of its subjects. For instance, Del Toro does not rekindle the specter of his forebears impish wit. Of, for instance, James Whale’s mischievious tonal promiscuity, his blurring of emotions, his sense for mordant elegy, his indelible curiosity for outsiders and perusing uncertainty about the state of existence. Del Toro clearly lionizes his subjects, but the greatest compliment is a genuine critique, an exploration, an extension, a reading, of any kind. Yet, for Del Toro, one wonders if these older specimens don’t just exist suspended in time, skillfully preserved as sacrosanct objects to protect? One detects not the experimental glee of prodding gingers ready to expose the psychic or mental innards of cinema past, but only the gloved hand of a devotee primping and pruning its play-things for show.
That might be acceptable if the objects of Del Toro’s devotion weren’t themselves already wonderfully self-critical and genuinely exploratory to begin with, if they didn’t already provoke questions and wrinkles which Del Toro’s somewhat textural monotone cannot possibly consider. His film is extraordinarily surface-bound, and its feints toward exploring surfaces as a theme vacillate between misguided and confused. The whole story is told in the costumes of the two central females, a decision which here speaks not to the elegance or folkloric clarity of classicism but the superficiality of simplicity, driven into clarity for the screenplay’s rudimentary reaches for greater complexity. These external textures are oddly at-odds with the themes of female empowerment (asking us to look beyond the surfaces) and the haunting half-presences of pasts which reside in the liminal space between sight and absence.
Even setting aside the costumes, what of Del Toro’s other glimpses of the glimpsed, and the glimpsing? Do Del Toro’s copious visual and aural signifiers – gramophones, paintings with austere eyes, glasses, all lenses which variously perceive, sense, and represent reality – actually have anything to say about the way in which cinema is a material ghost, to apply the title of Gilberto Perez’ wonderful book, a medium which exists parallel to and which ephemerally touches reality, glimpsing and ephemerally interacting with it? Or are these signifiers merely parlor tricks for the film?
The clay is an equally cloyingly obvious metaphor, but does the film have the chutzpah to dig in and expose all of its resonances, obvious or not? Is the film alive to the crucial parallel between the clay mining technology which reaves the soul of the present earth, not unlike film, in search of glimpses of the past, either of the dead buried, of wealth lost, or of family-recognition faded and tarnished? Like cinematic reincarnations, all are past worlds which can only be tenuously visualized as mediated fascimiles, as performances or visions of the past which, cinematically, only approximate once-lived lives? In this sense, is Del Toro exploring the way in which images simultaneously reflect, refract, and belie more subcutaneous, more ambivalent realities, or is he simply looking for an excuse to please his ego?
While the characters of Crimson Peak are simultaneously aware of and deluded by their histories, what is Del Toro’s relationship to his? And where is the room for making cinematic mischief he exhibits so wonderfully when unburdened, a la Blade II? Comparatively, Crimson Peak is somehow both cinema literate and cinema addicted, but it derives the benefits of neither. It is too studied and finessed, a la the former, to run amok with the effervescent glee of film-making and, conversely, too fanboyish-ly content to revel in the pleasures of other films to truly dig beneath their surfaces. It’s a teenager wearing its parent’s clothing, essentially, and in crossing these streams, the film both never grew up and forgot how to truly play in the sand.
Updated Score: 5.5/10