Crimson Peak (2015)
Pan’s Labyrinth. Pacific Rim. The Devil’s Backbone. Crimson Peak – there’s a certain semiotic dimension to Mr. Guillermo del Toro’s more admired oeuvre emanating from the movie titles alone, a pregnant mix of geographic locales and fantastical creatures, a cartography of the psyche and soul where primeval instincts ooze through the porous boundaries of both mortal and spiritual realms. In his latest film, which he has patiently waited a near decade to craft, the Mexican monster maestro has been imbibing enough opium to make Edgar Allen Poe proud, invoking a gothic saturated fever dream that mixes elements of Daphne Du Maurier, M.R. James and Shirley Jackson through the phantasmographic lens of Mario Bava at his bloated and barking best. In turn of the century upstate New York a love triangle develops among the upper class echelons of polite society. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a spirited career woman working in her father’s architect firm, spending her spare time penning ghost stories and musing on her mother’s early passing and subsequent, spooky visitations. One of her potential suitors Dr. Alan McMichael (a morbidly miscast Charlie Hunnam) has his romantic diagnosis delayed with the arrival of the decadently dashing Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddlestone), the heir apparent of a decaying ancestral pile back in Cumberland, UK. Sharpe has been desperately seeking backers to develop his revolutionary industrial mining contraption, scouring failure from the venture capitalists across Europe, and it is soon clear from secretive plot developments that he and his icy sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) have something of an ulterior motive to pull Edith into their web of deceit for a nefarious, devilish purpose……
Although del Toro wrote this film with his fellow scribe Matthew Robbins a decade ago he has been distracted with the aborted Hobbit project and his sojourn into manga, as well as producing some TV shows and various print side products. You must admire his dedication to his art as he has patiently waited to make this with both the budget appropriate to meet his vision – $30 million was offered by some studios but he held out for $50 million – and quite extraordinarily insisting on retention of the hard R certificate, so his ominous orchestration of violence and match the adult trappings of this psycho-sexual update to the likes of Hammer in its heyday and other melancholy romances such as Rebecca and the Welles starring Jane Eyre. It’s therefore quite painful to have no surrogates to blame on Crimson Peak’s core failings as we can’t cite studio interference or a dearth of resources, and it’s certainly one of the most lavish and lacquered Hollywood films of recent vintage. No, where Crimson Peak falls to ruin is with a plot which patiently waltzes from A to B, taking a good half of its run time before it even gets to its evocative title location, yet when settled on the bleak Cumbrian moors still can’t muster an iron grip on its audiences exasperated and disinterested affections.
I just didn’t care, and when you have no truck or concern for the main characters fate then your tale is trapped in a torpid tailspin. Mia Wasikowska is one of the better young actresses working today but I’ve never seen her this distant, with a character who starts with promise before making ludicrous choices and sacrifices which don’t logically flow from her earlier affectations. Chastain fares slightly better in he villainess role which at least gives her some stone-brick scenery to gnaw upon, while Hiddlestone stands as an emblematic clothes horse, yearning for Byronesque decay but just looking a bit sad. There’s no doubt that horror aficionados can imbibe heavily of the ornate Hammer studio infrastructure which is given a 21st century blooding, featuring some risqué sex and a brutal death scene which would have Gasper Noe or Winding-Refn wincing in pain. It’s a shame that these shortcomings just don’t fall together as in one area it is quietly revolutionary, framing the female characters as the main propellant force, Edith and Lucille locked in spiritual combat for the very soul of the house. In the meantime while both Hiddlestone and Hunnam splutter around the screen, the latter conducting his perilously slow investigations into his beloved’s fate, shading them as both ineffectual and dare I say it…impotent?
For all its faults Crimson Peak is undoubtedly a stunning visual tour-de-force, a banquet for the eyes with its delirium blend of baroque mahogany fittings, strobe shattered inclement weather and fluttering shadows of the psyche, and del Toro’s production designers should be applauded for the hissing cauldron they have warmly constructed. The level of detail to the costumes alone is outstanding, not just the semiotic spectrum of colour gradients and materials, but also the emotive designs and fashions. The Sharp family sartorial designs are specifically constructed at the height of bespoke late 19th century fashion yet distressed through a decade of wear of tear, an unconscious signifier of the families steady worsening finances and slide into destitute debauchery. The creature designs are also malignantly magnificent and a million miles away from your standard issue ghoulish design template, not surprising given this is del Toro’s stock in trade, of using his creatures and monsters for metaphors of wider thematic and emblematic entities. I thought there were a couple of genuinely spooky sequences which were a succulent change of diet from today’s cattle prod scare-fests, with enough spine-tingling elements to keep us connoisseur cackling. The on-screen character reactions to certain phenomena always makes me chuckle, as I don’t know about you but if I went through any of Edith’s experiences I would literally spend the rest of the movie going ‘No seriously guys, I actually seriously saw a FUCKING GHOST, this wasn’t a hallucination or anything, this was like an actual physical manifestation and I’m like seriously wailing in the spiritual turmoil that such an experience has inflicted on my entire metaphysical worldview. Listen to me, I’m not fucking around. Seriously. Fuck. A ghost. Fuck. I mean…ghosts. A ghost. A fucking ghost. They actually exist. Jesus Christ. Ghosts. Actually. Exist. My god, the implications. Fuck.’….and on and on ad nauseam until the closing credits. In fact when the plotting and tempo begins to slither toward the finish line it’s all the more bittersweet, there’s just no narrative shock or buried surprises here, although it might be a little unfair as the finale does follow a sense of misplaced sympathy. Instead I was urging the film to hurtle toward a Poltergeist conclusion, where instead del Toro’s instincts renders the finale as more of a Burnt Offerings, if you catch my smouldering drift.
So Guillermo has been doing the rounds on the marketing trail, both across the mainstream media and the more esoteric podcast community over the past week or so. He and Ron Perlman still have an appetite for a final Hellboy film to round out the trilogy, and seem to be on something of a public charm offensive to persuade the purse holders to take another risk as the last film barely broke even with a paltry $160 million take against an $85 million budget means it barely broke even. There is also talk of a Pacific Rim sequel which unsurprisingly did good business in the Eastern markets while barely find purchase in North America multiplexes, I didn’t care for on the big screen nor on a Blu-Ray revisit but who am I to judge? Here’s some background material on the film’s production which supports my thesis that as a visual experience it is worthy of examination, even without the dramatic infrastructure to buttress it’s collapsing thematic ambitions. In any case I’d prefer GDT pursues this type of more personal movie as opposed to the franchise behemoths, maybe he needs to revert back to a small budgeted Spanish language feature to re-channel his mojo? Ah, I hear you say, what about that delicious sounding Lovecraft project? Well, it’s a shame that Peak seems to have significantly underperformed which further erodes the potential of the Mountains Of Madness movie, so let’s face the yawning unutterable horror that no-one has really managed to ‘get’ Lovecraft and potently translate those unfathomable eldritch utterances from page to screen, and it ain’t gonna happen any time soon. It seems growingly apparent that lightning has only struck once with Mr. del Toro, sure I like the Hellboy movies as blockbuster fare, and as an eerie enthusiast I’ll always look forward to the films of anyone whose entire ideology revolves around creatures, outcasts and the trappings of the horror, suspense and mystery genres, but another masterpiece like Pans Labyrinth seems increasingly unlikely, but I hope he proves me wrong. Until then we must be content with entertaining yet slightly ineffectual baubles such as Crimson Peak, gothic soufflé’s that look darkly tasty from the exterior, but under scrutiny collapse with a whisper;