A new film from Guillermo del Toro is always cause for a celebration amongst cinephiles. His films express his love and passion for the legendary genre film makers of his childhood. It doesn’t take a magnifying glass to find the references to Hammer Horror, or the tributes to Ray Harryhausen. They exhibit a knowledge other movies might seem embarrassed to display, and an understanding that most other pieces plainly do not have. In his films we see the magic and beauty of not just his own work, but of the works that inspired him.
The most obvious inspiration for his new film however, is more literary than cinematic. It draws upon the gothic romances of Shelley or the Brontë Sisters. It breaths in deep from the mist of the Yorkshire Moors and drinks from the reserves of the Lake District. It bleeds with blood dripped from vampiric fangs. It wears its influences like a newly fashioned 19th Century ballgown, and proudly parades it as if it were the very peak of the social season. The film is unashamedly and unabashedly a melodramatic ghost story of the penny dreadful generation.
Mia Wasikowska, that muse to twisted men (seriously, with lead roles in films by Burton, Cronenburg, Chan-wook Park, Ayoade, Jarmusch and now del Toro, all she needs is to be directed by David Lynch and she’ll have completed the set) plays Edith Cushing, a character whom del Toro wastes little time in telling you just how he wants you to think of her. She is a budding Jane Austin of American origin, an Emily Brontë of Buffalo, New York. She is scholarly, practical and has a deep understanding of the true purpose that monsters serve in narrative construction. She is a thinly veiled guise for del Toro himself, a gentle soul with a mastery over the macabre.
She has a love interest in the form of Charlie Hunnam’s Dr. Alan McMichael, a doctor with a deeply inquisitive scientific mind and a masters in humble integrity. Too bad for him his earthly charms simply cannot compete with Tom Hiddleston’s Thomas Sharpe, a mysterious and charismatic visitor from the island setting of all of Edith’s favourite novels. They fall madly in love, much to the dismay of everyone who has ever held Edith dear. He whisks her away to his stately home of Allerdale Hall, a place where the abundance of red clay stains the snow in Winter, christening it with the nickname Crimson Peak. There, he and his sister – played by Jessica Chastain – harbour dark and deadly secrets they want hidden, but that the ghosts of Allerdale Hall want brought to light.
Guillermo del Toro is not in the business of deceiving you into believing that this is slice of captured reality. He has no time or concern for verisimilitude. He would rather indulge you upon lavish set design, extravagant costumes and spectacular effects. Neither does he want to surprise you, for if he did he wouldn’t be broadcasting his twists like emergency bulletins. No, he expects a certain knowledge from his audience, and audience who are just as versed as he is with the tropes and clichés of genre. Rather than bucking these trends for the sake of freshness, he gorges on them and it creates some compelling moments.
Take Jessica Chastain’s show stopping performance for example. If you can guess from the start that she’s an unbalanced psycho then why pretend otherwise? This frees her to act menacing and omnipotent straight from her introduction, meaning that her behaviour at the end of the film is more consistent with her behaviour throughout, making her a more convincing villain.
The film is filled with great character moments that seem so simple, it baffles you as to how so many films mess up this kind of elementary storytelling. It gives the film a refreshing clarity, unburdened with feeling like it has to provide ammunition for the trailer or a loading shot for product placement. It feels uncompromised. A strangely innocent thing for such a bloody film to be.
Ah yes, the violence. The film walks the line between creepy ghost story and out and out horror with the occasionally cheeky step into Tarentino style exploitation flick. When the blood comes it comes abruptly and memorably. I’m a hardened veteran of movie and videogame violence, but even this made me wince, a reaction I haven’t had to a modern picture in quite some time. It punctuates the atmosphere and draws you to the edge of your seat. But, crucially it never outstays its welcome. Del Toro allows the violence to remain shocking by only overdoing it when the story calls for a punch to the gut, right when the audience is at its most vulnerable.
Crimson Peak knows what it is and never shies away from its identity, even indulging in it to the point where conventional moviemaking wisdom would dictate it should stop. For those of you put off by the trailer and who thought del Toro was in danger of falling in love with his more extreme instincts, you would be right. But our man from Guadalajara is so good that for him, being allowed his wildest fantasies is a virtue, not a flaw.
4 / 5
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Scr: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain
Prd: Guillermo del Toro, Callum Greene, Jon Jashni
DOP: Dan Lausten
Music: Fernando Velázquez
Run time: 119 mins
Crimson Peak is in cinemas now.