Sunday, 18 October 2015

Crimson Peak (2015, Guillermo Del Toro)

There is a forewarning, if one must view it such a way, from central character Edith Cushing about her unpublished novel not being a ghost story but rather a story with ghosts in it. It feels like a knowing side-glance to the audience to prepare themselves for a certain type of horror film; one which is drenched in sadness, loss, and longing and relies on the tortured adult souls on display to be explored through the metaphor of ghosts i.e. the past, a metaphor again brought to attention. For anyone knowingly walking into Guillermo Del Toro's new film, they shouldn't be surprised by his approach here for it covers similar ground to his Spanish Civil War-set ghost story The Devil's Backbone (2001) and offers similar thrills and pains, whether they be physical or emotional, and feels part of a lineage concluding said film and the sensational Pan's Labyrinth (2006).

Crimson Peak follows the story of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who after meeting and falling for the charming industrial inventor Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) is taken to be married and to live with her new husband and neglectful sister-in-law Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in their rotting family home in England. Edith probably wouldn't have left New York if it wasn't for the mysterious death of her father, which after the untimely death of her mother when she was a little girl has left her alone without family. The headstrong young would-be Mary Shelley is disarmed as the film follows her gradually being dominated by the two headed dragon of Thomas and Lucille who harbour a grave secret that is revealed gradually throughout the story.

Crimson Peak is as visually stunning as anything you're bound to see this year; every frame saturating the film's palette lifting the colour as if from the screen and for a film so cloaked in death it is also so alive, so vitalised by the joy of just being. The family mansion of Lucille and Thomas Sharpe is so magnificent yet a building that aches with pain and seems to cry and howl endlessly as a character quite rightfully unto itself. The candles held by Edith as she wonders through her new home, her yellow hair juxtaposed against the cold moonlight and the crimson mass of the resident ghosts. This is eye-popping cinema in a similar vein to the technicolor films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and reminds how rare it is to be visually stimulated in such a way by an American studio film in recent times.

This vitality comes from the ever passionate Guillermo Del Toro - a filmmaker who shoots with his heart firmly on the lens. His childlike fondness for the wonders of cinema is one that is utterly endearing however I found this affectionate naivety being lost on this particular story. Whereas before I have accepted this storyteller and have admitted to being lost, in awe, and needing a guide out of Pan's Labyrinth, I found myself almost immediately aware of how to exit Crimson Peak's maze.

Much as the film's characters are shackled to the past in pure gothic fashion, so is Crimson Peak by design; this is a film that in many ways echoes the studio films of the 1940s, which is at times a joy to see a filmmaker creating such a stirring picture of the past but one that verges on homage to the point of disruption. The story beats of Hitchcock outings Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, and Psycho come with pleasure much like the other gothic reference points that come in abundance, but by the end it's doubtful how much Crimson Peak offers to this lineage.

I admire and am still in awe of Crimson Peak by the sheer nature of its design, its tenderness regarding a sub-genre of horror rarely explored anymore, of its bravery and exuberance to showcasing emotion in every frame helped through by Fernando Velázquez's sweeping score and Dan Lausten's baroque cinematography, yet I'm unable to shake off the feeling that something has been lost in the mix here. I was expecting Del Toro to hit me in the gut or to pull at my heart strings like he has managed in the past (even his Hellboy films evoke an emotional response) but this never came. Crimson Peak is a great throwback to classical horror (classical in the literal sense) and there is pleasure to be had in that but for all the film's success in recreating this strand of cinema it winds up being a present that should be viewed and not touched where the temptation to tear it open and enjoy it is all too overwhelming.

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