Crimson Peak marks the first time director Guillermo del Toro has adapted his love for the macabre for English speaking audiences as his past two efforts, the excellent dark fantasy Pan's Labyrinth and his very first feature Devil's Backbone were both Spanish language films and unless you are into the foreign language film market or try to watch every film on a director's resume chances are this is most viewer's first encounter with his love of Gothic themes mixed with haunting imagery. That is unfortunately both a benefit and a detriment as most audiences will be lured into their local multiplexes by a series of marketing ads selling them on something that it clearly isn't and was never intended to be. Read the full review after the break.
Review Vital Stats:
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 1 hr 59 min
Studio: Universal Pictures
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Loves: Pan's Labyrinth
Likes: Pacific Rim, Mimic, Hellboy 1 and 2
Neutral: Blade 2
Hates: Movie studios marketing a movie as something it isn't
Did you know?: Guillermo del Toro was supposed to make the Hobbit movies.
Taking place around the turn of the 20th Century, we follow young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) from her early childhood when she lost her mother to early adulthood when she meets the dashing young baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who proceeds to court her against the wishes of both Edith's close childhood friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam) and her loving father (Jim Beaver). Soon Edith and Thomas are married and heading to Allerdale Hall, Thomas' home in England also known as Crimson Peak, a name it has received due to the large amount of red clay that lies beneath the foundation. Once there Edith and Thomas along with Thomas' sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) attempt to forge a new life together but when Edith begins seeing shadowy figures roaming the halls of the old mansion she unwittingly starts to unravel a mystery that leads to some horrifying revelations.
A thought came to me while watching Crimson Peak, the latest film from horror film maestro Guillermo del Toro,. It is a miracle that studios still give him the funding and freedom to make the movies that he does, it really is. Not because of the usual reasons such as delivering sub-par work which is almost never the case with him, instead it is because his films are not made for general audiences which is something movie studio executives don't like to hear when they have invested millions into a project. So, like most of his work, Crimson Peak isn't exactly what we might expect it to be but like usual that turns out to be a good thing.
A couple weeks leading up to the release of the film del Toro had taken to the internet in a battle with the advertising campaign for his film. What is this battle you ask? Well, as is the case with most major film studios who pay someone to make a movie and then discover that movie isn't easy to market and want to get their revenue in any way possible, they are promoting Crimson Peak as this spooky haunted house movie which is like calling Paranormal Activity a film about voyeurism. If you had the unfortunate opportunity to see any of the advertising for the film then you have likely already developed a set of expectations that can and never will be met since the film itself is in the words of its creator not a horror film nor a haunted house story, it is Gothic romance.
However, if you enter the theater with the proper expectations on what the film is supposed to be then you will discover one of the most atmospheric and visually stunning films of the year. Guillermo del Toro has always been more a visual filmmaker than one that relied on stories or characters, which may or may not be the best approach but damned if it doesn't work. Complimenting his style of filmmaking is his love for practical sets and effects which he knows are key to immersing the audience into the worlds he creates. Sure, he uses digital effects where he needs to (Hellboy 2 is a poster child for the perfect marriage between CG and practical effects), but he always goes that extra mile when he can.
With Crimson Peak the director has outdone himself in nearly every conceivable way when it comes to set and costume design. While the early parts of the film that take place in New York are no slouch when it comes to capturing all those tiny little details of the era, the true visual majesty of the film comes into play once we actually arrive at Crimson Peak. The manor itself is dark, bleak, foreboding and also falling apart at the seams as it systematically sinks into its foundation of red clay. It isn't a place anyone would ever want to stay at but when it comes to something you want to look at and spend the next couple hours soaking in every single detail such as the broken ceiling where leaves and snow drift down ever so elegantly into the main hall or the decaying walls that ooze red clay down the stained decorative wallpaper, it is a place you will never want to leave.
Matching the obscene quality of the set design are the costumes which have been recreated with a ridiculous amount of detail. Most films in this genre are considered lucky if they are given a budget to get any clothes at all let alone a wardrobe that equals and even surpasses many legitimate period dramas out there. It's not too much a stretch of the imagination to say those period dramas might have some competition come awards time as if there were one area that unequivocally earns it a place among the more standard nominees, it is the costume design. So with all this praise about the practical aspects of the film how do those inevitable digital effects hold up in comparison? The answer...surprisingly well.
Guillermo del Toro made a film called Blade 2 a while back which featured one of the most disastrous uses of digital effects in the history of film which featured a one on one fight between Blade and another character that was all done in silhouette but still looked as if the audience were watching a poorly animated cartoon more so than a live action movie. He has learned from mistakes since then and his minimal use of digital effects in Crimson Peak are a testament to his ability to adapt and overcome his past failures. The single focal point of the digital effects in Crimson Peak are of course the ghosts which succeed based on a few of factors. 1. Most of the time they are shrouded in darkness and/or out of focus. 2. They aren't over designed which in other words means they are simplistic but still effective in how they are used and lastly they are used sparingly enough as to never outstay their welcome.
Other CG elements such as the moths and a very graphic image of ants tearing apart a butterfly don't really blend quite as well as the ghosts but are so brief and in the background that we hardly notice any faults with them. Where the film might come up short for some people though is with the story elements, which when boiled down to its basic parts is a story of love and betrayal, not exactly horrible but not all that novel either. The issue really isn't in how the story is told or any problems with the characters, its that compared to all the effort that was put into look and feel of the film it comes off a little plain and simple which may very well have been the idea in retrospect.
When dealing with a film this visually dense with details it makes sense to go the simple route with the story as it gives the audience time to take in all the visual splendor and never get lost with an over complicated plot. Some may disagree with that assessment of course but when all is said and done the story does serve its purpose and actually has a couple interesting twists and turns it takes during the appropriately bloody finale. As for the romance angle, it was handled better than most would expect but also didn't really hit the way it was intended. Let's just say that the relationship between Edith and Thomas is believable and they do have a certain chemistry with one another, but the events that go down near the end don't have the impact you would hope for even when their lives hang in the balance. Helping the story along is a handful of extremely capable and talented assortment of individuals and some other actors who have more dubious skill sets.
The two bright spots are without a doubt Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain playing this awkward pair of siblings, both of whom bring a sinister nature to their characters without hitting you over the head with their ill intentions. There is also some good supporting work from Jim Beaver as Edith's dad who garners more sympathy than your average over protective father figure. Charlie Hunnam redeems himself slightly after his impossibly bland performance in del Toro's last film Pacific Rim but the true surprise is Mia Wasikowska as Edith. For me, she has never really demonstrated why she keeps getting such juicy lead roles (both Alice in Wonderland and Stoker failed to make me a fan) but as Edith she brings a subtle delicateness to the part that makes her struggles near the end feel much more authentic as a result.
It's difficult to imagine that Crimson Peak isn't everything its creator intended it to be. Equal parts romance, horror, mystery and of course oozing with atmospheric touches within every single frame, this Gothic tale of love and loss hits all the right chords. Few films reach such visual density without feeling over produced but Guillermo del Toro has reached some new personal bests in terms of being a director and a storyteller with Crimson Peak. There will be those out there who will find the pace plodding and perhaps won't be able to accept it for what it is other than what they wanted it to be, but that in no way takes away from one of the most visually captivating and eerily haunting films of the year. This film deserves your attention.
Not since Pan's Labyrinth has Guillermo del Toro delivered such a beautiful cinematic experience as this. While it isn't perhaps the director's best film it is no doubt in the top tier of not only his own filmography but also one of the best films in its respective genre, as small a field as that may be. With each Halloween season that passes by we get fewer and fewer films released during that time that warrant our attention, Crimson Peak is one of those few. Check it out, you won't regret it.