Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: Crimson Peak

by Patrick Bromley
This is an impossibly gorgeous movie that I want to live in. Except for all the ghosts and murder.

I have a strange relationship with Guillermo del Toro. I think he's a great filmmaker and I'm so thankful that he is making movies, particularly because he mixes smaller personal films (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone) with big blockbusters (Pacific Rim, the Hellboy films), both of which feel like an extension of who he is. He's a true visionary, and there should be more filmmakers with as much imagination, passion and vision making films as he does on a massive scale. I love del Toro the person even more than del Toro the filmmaker. He loves all the things I love with all his heart and he lives to put that love back on the screen. We are lucky to have him.

Having said that, it's rare that I fully fall in love with any of his movies -- I appreciate so many things about them but rarely lose myself in them. He's never made something that I have disliked, but only Pan's Labyrinth and Blade II really connect with me. Well, add Crimson Peak to that list. I loved it.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing, a young woman living in 19th century New York. She's the daughter of a wealthy industrialist but wants to carve out her own place -- unlike the girls around her, Edith has no desire to marry a wealthy man but instead has dreams of being a successful writer. Into her life comes Sir Thomas Sharpe (Thomas Hiddleston), an English aristocrat seeking an investment from Edith's father (a delightful Jim Beaver). Her father dislikes Sharpe immediately, but Edith finds herself falling in love with him against her better judgment. She eventually returns to his crumbling family estate Allerdale Hall -- sometimes referred to as "Crimson Peak" because of the red clay that seeps through the soil and snow -- where she lives with Sharpe and his icy sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain). The house is old and full of ghosts, and as Edith investigates the estate she begins to uncover the dark and terrifying secrets of Crimson Peak.

A big deal has been made of the fact that Crimson Peak is not a horror movie; del Toro has been saying as much on his press tour and even has Edith say early in the film that "This is not a ghost story; it's a story with ghosts in it." By my standards, it is still a horror movie -- it has ghosts and murder and a great big spooky house. It is a film positively overflowing with gothic atmosphere, born of a love for Edgar Allan Poe and Hammer and Mario Bava. Crimson Peak is celebration of a specific kind of '60s horror, and del Toro recreates the period perfectly and with the utmost care and respect. I could go on and on about how exquisitely gorgeous the movie is, from the production design by Thomas Sanders to the costumes by Kate Hawley to Brandt Gordon's art direction to Dan Lausten's photography -- everyone involved with the film does incredible work, and I can't think of another movie this year with visuals with which I've fallen more in love. The atmosphere is perfect, so much so that I didn't want the movie to end.
The narrative is less expertly realized than what's in front of the camera. The screenplay, by del Toro and sometimes collaborator Matthew Robbins (who, once upon a time, directed Dragonslayer), offers little in the way of surprise or originality. The dialogue can be clumsy and on the nose at times. None of that matters. Crimson Peak works exactly as it is supposed to work -- it is a feverishly heightened romance and, like all good ghost stories (or stories with ghosts in them) a film about the sins of the past returning. Wasikowska is as ethereal as ever but no mere damsel in distress; her Edith is a woman of intelligence and agency, and when she is swept up in romance it is in spite of herself and not the fulfillment of any girlish fantasies. Hiddleston continues to impress with his every performance, striking just the right balance of charming sincerity and deceptive con man, while Chastain gets to have the most fun as the potentially unhinged Lady Lucille. The film is engaging during the early New York stuff (in large part because of Jim Beaver), but once it gets to England and puts the three actors inside that incredible house it's able to fully become what it's meant to be.
Crimson Peak has already proven polarizing. There are those who object to its preference for gothic romance over full-blooded horror and others who seem unable to forgive the narrative shortcomings in spite of the visuals on display. I cannot argue with any of these people, as we can only respond to the film in a way that's honest for ourselves. The same goes for me, and I honestly love the film. Do I think that Crimson Peak has its problems? Sure. Charlie Hunnam gives yet another weak performance and the scariest moments are undermined by the usual CGI "ink blot" ghosts, digitally created apparitions with wispy black tendrils floating off of their spectral bodies. Do I care? No. I'm too deep in love with the look and feel of the film, so painstakingly and lovingly created by del Toro and his team. His films are so often about his love of fairly tales and the fantastic, but also about his love of film, perhaps none more than Crimson Peak. I want to watch this movie again and again. It's one of my favorites of the year.


  1. Whew! I was so afraid I'd be alone in my unabashed love of this film.

  2. Captain Bromley, you are a scholar and a gentlemen sir, and I am ecstatic that you loved this film, and in turn have aroused myself to go out and watch this film

  3. I wish I had your response to the film. I agree with almost everything you said, I loved the atmosphere, the setting and the design but I could not enjoy the film to the extent you clearly did. I have loved all Del Toro's films (though i havent seen Blade II or Mimic) but for Crimson Peak I merely appreciated it. Its clearly a well made film but the narrative problems kept me out of it. Far too many contrivances and coincidences, especially annoying were the many 'reveals', which caught me off guard because I thought it was so obvious that it could not warrant a reveal. Still, I find myself wanting to re watch it already. I strongly doubt it will end on my top 10 this year, but maybe I'll look back on that and regret it.

  4. I really dug the movie as well. I noticed a lot of similarities with Del Toro's earlier movie The Devil's Backbone, from questioning the nature of ghosts to the point that a major ghost has the almost exact same design as Santi from Backbone. Does anybody have any thoughts on if Crimson Peak builds on the ideas presented in the earlier movie or just repeats them? I'm not saying that Crimson Peak needed to go in a bold new direction, I went to see a gothic ghost story and that's what I got in spades so I'm not complaining. I just find myself wishing that a filmmaker with Del Toro's talents could break new ground even within the same story structure, but I also find all of his movies so engaging and well put together that I often suspect he really is pushing the boundaries and I'm just too blind to see it.

    1. I don't know if this answers your question (and, as I've never seen The Devil's Backbone, it probably doesn't), but I've also noticed similarities, both thematic and in the design of the ghosts, between this movie and the only other movie of Del Toro's I've ever seen, Pan's Labyrinth. As you've pointed out (and I should warn everyone know, this comment is obviously filled with SPOILERS), CP seems to question the nature of the ghosts in it, and, although it's been years since I've seen Pan's Labyrinth, I got the strong impression when I watched PL that the veracity of the fantastic elements is in doubt; indeed, I was quite sad in the end, as it seemed the little girl's whole adventure was just a fantasy she created to distract herself from her very real-life horrors. In CP, Edith, who, as Lucille (I think it's Lucille) reminds us, has a "very active imagination" is really the only character on whom the ghosts have any effect; were it not for Edith's visions, this film would just be a Victorian thriller.

      Thus, in PL & CP, we have the external, objective discord (civil war in the former film; crazy, incestuous siblings in the latter) and the internal, fantastic elements that help the character who experiences them to cope with their "mundane" problems (escapism in the case of PL; ghosts--who all, despite their sinister appearance--HELP Edith in CP). Given that Del Toro seems particularly vulnerable to the "style over substance" criticism (and given his cliched dialogue and plots points, it's easy to dismiss him as such), this seems like a particularly intelligent meditation on ghosts and fantasy that is absent from most films.

      As to the similarity between the monsters, I just thought the ghosts in CP kind of reminded me of the Pale Man in PL; as I said, I've never seem TDB, but maybe it would be fair to say Del Toro's monsters do have have a "look."

      (BTW, I thought I published this already, but it didn't seem to take; sorry if this is posted twice!!)

    2. "...and I should warn everyone know..."

      *NOW, sorry for this and any other typos.

    3. There are also definite stylistic motifs culled from The Devil's Backbone. It doesn't bother me; it shows there's an artistic connection, if not also a thematic one.

  5. I've been waiting for this review. Sigh of relief that it's good. Can't wait to go see it.

  6. I think the marketing of this movie is all wrong. It's not a horror movie. It's a gothic romance (with ghosts).

    1. That's true, but how many people would pay to see a movie marketed as a gothic romance vs a movie marketed as horror?

  7. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, its nice to have something to look forward to, this a Tales of Halloween are awaiting me after franchise month, I have a feeling the 7 Texas Chainsaw movies could be the worst. Possibly worse than the Chuckys? Its gonna be close

  8. Just saw it around 10 hours ago.
    I like it but I don´t love it although I agree on most points Patrick made.
    It´s overflowing with atmosphere, has gorgeous settings, wonderful costumes and the great camerawork of Dan Laustsen, who was also DP on the visually stunning Brotherhood of the wolf, which I really love.

    Just like Patrick, Blade II and Pan´s Labyrinth worked best for me and together with the first Hellboy and Devil´s backbone are the only GDT-movies I ever revisited.
    I also agree that Del Toro often has problems with it´s stories. Maybe he works too often with a really mediocre writer like Robbins (Mimic, Don´t be afraid of the dark, Warning sign....) who is also a very mediocre director (Dragonslayer, Batteries not included).

    But despite a not very surprising story and sometimes corny dialogue, the film mostly worked for me because of Del Toros strength with mood and visuals. It also helped to have a great cast like this (btw I read the Variety review, stating that Jessica Chastain was "alarmingly miscast" - I can´t disagree more - she was a perfectly icy bitch). Interestingly Jim Beaver as Wasikowskas father registered the most with me, maybe because he really worries about the happiness of his daughter or maybe because I liked his character on HBO´s Deadwood.

    The bursts of violence were really hard to watch...and normally I´m not squeamish regarding violence.
    Whatever GDT and his cast say, to me this is a horror film, but I think it will be a disappointment for many people expecting something scarier and spookier because of the misleading marketing.

    All in all, it worked for me, was great to look at on the big screen and every dollar of the reported 55 million is on screen. Sadly it won´t recoup this budget, let alone make any profit but I´m glad that we get something like this from time to time.

  9. The big reveal of what was actually going on pretty much killed this flick for me. I know the theme in question is a classic subtext of Gothic/Poe-esque horror, but bringing it to the foreground as the crux of the plot spoiled my appreciation of the supernatural charms with its ickiness. I wish the siblings had been doing something weird and occult, like building a portal into Hell with their machine; that way, the theme GDT did go with could have stayed in its proper subtextual place - IMO. For the first half of the movie, I was thinking "this could be a really great date night flick"... by the time the credits rolled, I'd changed my mind. :P

    Also, as a huge fan of an earlier movie in which a naive, shy, bookish Wasikowska travels to a Gothic, moor-adjacent English manor and is romanced by a dark, brooding Marvel movie supervillain with a crazy female relative, and becomes dangerously ill in the third act, I am compelled to opine that Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is a much better film (and also has horror directorial flourishes, to boot).