In looking back at the films of Guillermo del Toro, I’ve been drawn primarily to his fascination with sympathetic monstrosities coupled with a human element. There’s evil in the world, but it doesn’t necessarily come from where you think, or even perhaps hope it would. The living should be feared more than the dead, and while his latest film, Crimson Peak, brings him back to what’s technically a “ghost story”, it’s really, as protagonist and author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) says about her work, “more of a story with a ghost in it.” For del Toro, Crimson Peak is a love story, but it’s a side of love that’s darker and far more brutal than a typical ghost story. It’s not the ghost that fascinates del Toro; it’s the evil that creates it. However, uncovering that evil ends up shortchanging the protagonist, but thanks to del Toro’s eye for dark beauty, we’re willing to follow along on this gorgeous tale of love’s horrors.
Set in early 1900s Buffalo, New York, Edith works for her father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), a powerful businessman who’s willing to hear a proposition from desperate Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Thomas’ estate in England, Allerdale Hall, sits on top of a valuable mine, and he needs funding to build a machine that will reach the minerals underneath. Being tall, dark, and handsome, Thomas is able to win Edith’s heart as a means to the money, but he does seem to have genuine affection for her, much to the chagrin of his intimidating sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). However, when Edith moves with Thomas and Lucille to Allerdale Hall, she discovers that it holds dark secrets and wretched phantoms, and that the warning she received as a girl from her mother’s ghost, “Beware of Crimson Peak,” has come true.
Del Toro has repeatedly stressed that contrary to the film’s marketing campaign, Crimson Peak is a “gothic romance”, not “horror”, but I would counter that he seems drawn to the horrific aspects of the genre rather than romance. The movie has a promising beginning by giving Edith and Thomas’ kinship specificity—namely, that they see themselves as underdogs with no one taking Edith’s writing seriously because she’s a woman and Thomas’ business venture not shaking out—and there’s a lovely waltz between them that provides the foundation for an interesting love story. But while del Toro treats the romantic aspect with subdued respect, he relishes the macabre elements of his story.
I’m surprised that between Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, del Toro now seems to be skittish when it comes to creating fleshed out characters wrestling with human emotions. While Crimson Peak goes beyond the archetypes of Pacific Rim, this is a love story that’s oddly cold. Part of the problem comes from how the dynamic is set between Edith, Thomas, and Lucille. Edith is our hero, and yet she’s largely relegated to a pawn, and once she marries Thomas, the movie leaves behind her literary pursuits or interests in anything outside of Allerdale Hall. It’s like Carlos’ journey in The Devil’s Backbone without the camaraderie of his fellow orphans.
The emotional thrust comes from the supporting characters, and while Hiddleston plays his role well, Chastain absolutely owns the picture. Her character may as well say lines like “I’ll kill you in your sleep,” but watching Lucille work is like watching a deadly predator behave to perfection. You can’t help but respect her power, especially next to someone as milquetoast as Edith, who basically exists to be our guide through a marvelous haunted house filled with angry specters.
Like Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak is a wonder to behold. If del Toro had made a straight up period film, there’s no question this movie would be a strong contender to get Oscar nominations for Best Costumes and Best Production Design, but because there are also ghosts and the Academy is comprised of Very Serious People, I don’t know about its chances in the awards race. I do know that Allerdale Hall feels like another character in the film. It’s an organism that bleeds and breathes, and it’s a great credit to del Toro, Production Designer Thomas E. Sanders and Art Director Brandt Gordon. Kate Hawley’s costumes are equally exquisite, and the attention to detail in bringing this world to life is astounding.
Part of the appeal of the production is how tactile it is, and it’s a shame that del Toro goes overboard when it comes to the ghosts. The post-production design on them is so overdone that it takes real people and makes them look entirely CGI, which lessens the overall impact. Crimson Peak may not be a horror film, but the ghosts are meant to feel as real as their surroundings, and instead they feel far too modern. This may not be a ghost story, but ghosts are here, and they don’t serve the story well.
The mystery behind Allerdale Hall gets to be a bit tedious up until the end when del Toro finally reveals what he’s been going for all along, and since I’m bad at predicting plot twists, the reveal worked well for me, and it’s where Crimson Peak finally clicked. However, I’ve spoken to people who saw it coming a mile away, and they weren’t impressed by del Toro’s conclusion. Personally, I think he comes to something that’s deeply sick and twisted, but in a way that’s specific and oddly beautiful.
While Crimson Peak may not reach the heights of del Toro’s earlier work in terms of the characters or plot, it at least surpasses Pacific Rim in those regards. However, both films signal that the director has begun to get seriously lost in his designs, and it’s a credit to his talent that he can lose his audience in his shared passion, whether it’s for giant robots or for gothic romance. Thankfully, in the darkness of Allerdale Hall, there’s a dark, bleeding heart that shows love conquers all, and that makes it more fearsome than any screaming ghost.
For my Guillermo del Toro retrospective pieces, click on the links below. My look back at Pacific Rim will be posted tomorrow.
- Mimic: The Director’s Cut
- The Devil’s Backbone
- Blade II
- Pan’s Labyrinth
- Hellboy II: The Golden Army