Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Castle of Del Toro: Crimson Peak

Jessica Chastain in Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak.

Like the work of many artists, Guillermo Del Toro’s films are an amalgamation of his many different influences: from the eye-catching visuals and mythic storytelling of the comic book world to the heightened melodrama of Spanish literature and film, both of which deeply informed his upbringing in Mexico. His love of classic horror is clear too – he vibrates to the cerebral angst of Lovecraft, when he’s not referencing the Gothic staples of Shelley and Stoker. Crimson Peak is all of these, a Gothic horror romance come screaming to life with all the repressed sexual anxiety of the Victorian era and a lavish modern sheen. They (read: everyone except Del Toro) simply don’t make them like this anymore.

That may cause friction in some audiences, like a few of those at my screening who clearly didn’t jive with the film’s histrionics. Crimson Peak makes its intentions very clear from the opening scene, in which Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, Tracks) recalls the first time she saw a ghost, when her mother returns on the night of her funeral to deliver a cryptic warning: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” The sequence is captivating in its frightening tension and oddly sad tone, with the longing and grief of Edith’s recently dead mother at leaving her child balanced against the horrific inky blackness of her ghostly visage. This kind of heightened emotional tone, combined with the Shakespearean drama of the plot, seemed to confuse some viewers who may have been expecting more recognizable modern ghost story fare. Make no mistake, Crimson Peak is a ghost story – but it has more in common with The Castle of Otranto than The Conjuring.

Edith is a typist at her father’s office, but dreams of becoming a novelist; when a snotty socialite sarcastically compares her to Jane Austen, she fires back that she sees herself more as Mary Shelley (wink). Ophthalmologist Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy) follows, supports, and pines for the trim and beautiful Edith, but it is charming and seductive Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who sweeps her off her feet, marrying her against her father’s wishes and spiriting her away to Allerdale Hall, his crumbling Gothic mansion perched on an English heath. He resides inside its echoing tower with only his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), for company – and the secrets that they keep are second only in sinister foreshadowing to the hidden chambers and creaking machinery of the mansion itself, which the townsfolk refer to as “Crimson Peak” for the blood-red clay under the house, which bleeds up to the surface and through the rotting floorboards. Edith’s discovery of this nickname – mentioned in passing by a woebegone Thomas, who despairs of his lost fortune and the pathetic condition of the property that is his inheritance – is only the first indication she is given that her new life may not be what it seems.

Tom Hiddleston, in Allerdale Hall, in Crimson Peak.
The film uses the structure of classical romance to great effect, setting up its familiar tropes and then subverting them with the intent of surprising a modern audience. The waifish Edith is the picture of innocence, as curious and na├»ve as Carroll’s Alice and as beautiful as a cameo portrait. Thomas is the charming seducer, the handsome gentleman who introduces the heroine to the dangerous allure of sexual awakening, and whose intentions, like those of a certain famous Count, are not as pure as they first appear. Lucille is the harbinger of doom, the supporting character whose strange behavior and unknown motives alert the audience to the dark truth hiding just beneath the genteel surface. All are played to pitch-perfection by the cast. Tom Hiddleston has enough charisma to make up for any number of lacking cast mates (hell, he has charisma with the chair he sits in), but he doesn’t have to try with Wasikowski to play against, whose apparent banality reveals a deeply sympathetic performance that reminded me powerfully of the quiet and brilliant Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. It is Chastain as Lucille who truly steals the show, though. She begins on a slow intimidating simmer that builds to a boiling showstopper of a performance, fully embracing the melodramatic script with an almost savage glee. It’s taken her whole career, but it seems like she’s finally realized that it’s really, really fun to be bad, and I hope she gets to do more like this in future.

Hyperbolic statements like “Crimson Peak is one of the most staggeringly gorgeous movies I've ever seen” really don’t do justice to the way Del Toro arranges every frame with both overt emotional power and subtle visual symbolism. Working with cinematographer Dan Laustsen, he delights so much in the chance to invest colour, detail, and vibrancy in the way the film looks that the experience becomes a sumptuous visual feast for the viewer. Striking framing and vivid colour – frequent luxuriating shots of the dark Gothic mansion sitting atop its bed of red-spattered snow being the prime example – arrest the eye, and the minute detail of the costumes, sets, and props impose a sense of tactile reality to the otherwise extraordinary setting (many costumes were apparently real vintage period clothing, and every spindle, frieze, and staircase of Allerdale Hall is a wonder to behold). If I watch this film another five times, I'll still be noticing new and exciting ways Del Toro fills the frame with Crimson Peak's heightened character and mood, even when there isn't a single human being in sight.

The other technical aspects of the film aren’t lacking, either. There are the flashes of shocking violence that have defined some of Del Toro’s earlier, more adult work, but they’re as Shakespearean in their intent as they are modern in their gruesome depiction. Crimson Peak can sometimes feel like a soap opera, but the emotions aren’t as cheap and the stakes aren’t as meaningless. It’s perhaps the first time that the director’s signature violence has felt truly appropriate in context. The effects, too, are a match for the exquisite visuals – especially the ghost effects, which use in-camera techniques and motion capture by Del Toro staple and physical mastermind Doug Jones (most famous as Abe Sapien from Hellboy and the disgusting Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth) to create the tangible, terrifying specters that populate Allerdale Hall.

With his boundless enthusiasm and visionary artistic instinct, Del Toro has cemented himself as perhaps my favourite living director, who manages to navigate through the quagmire of the studio system to somehow sneak his unique, original, and fascinating films into theatres. It’s for this reason that I think of him as daring; his movies – especially Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak – hum with the rebellious energy of underground art infiltrating the mainstream. Their imperfections can almost always be attributed to stylistic choice, and audiences’ problems with them are similarly often a matter of taste – and while Peak may not fit every palate, it’s an astonishingly beautiful, scary, and fun experience for those craving more a more classical Gothic flavour in their trips to the cinema.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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