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.