Mainstream audiences are like the color blind, only seeing the world in stale monochromes, but Guillermo del Toro, stripping his films from the production line’s homogeny, offers us vibrant views we have yet to experience. In an age of “orangy” blockbusters, readymade Marvel movies and underexposed horror films, Crimson Peak is a pleasure to behold.
Del Toro’s influences are numerous – gothic painting, giallo and even editing techniques from silent cinema – yet Crimson Peak is unique, not for any specific detail, but because of its vast palette of allusions. The film is otherworldly and expressionistic, yet there is an industrial quality to some of the visuals: machines associated with the beginnings of modernism play a key role here.
With sumptuous reds, luscious costumes and sensual candlelight, the mise en scène rivals Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (this week’s other gorgeous delight) in terms of a shot-to-jaw-drop ratio. Working in a gothic milieu and the mid-20th century, del Toro manages to poke fun at some of the genre’s absurdities while adhering to its potential for poetry. A menacing painting of a woman is played for laughs but an old decrepit house, with crumbling plaster and a giant hole in the roof, is unironically mysterious. Sure, someone could have fixed the roof or repainted the walls but that wouldn’t be as interesting to look at.
But there’s a reason I’ve written close to 400 words without mentioning the story, and Crimson Peak is a film more concerned with style than characters and the mystery/romance/horror plot; despite an interesting theme, the characters are thin and the plot is predictable.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who was haunted by a spirit of her dead mother as a child, is the daughter of Carter, a wealthy, self-made man during the Industrial Revolution in America. When the enigmatic Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) comes to town with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith quickly falls for him despite her father’s disapproval. Supposedly, because he isn’t of a higher class, Carter forbids Thomas’ relationship with Edith. Following a tragedy, Edith marries her lover and moves into his decrepit mansion that is segregated from city life.
Although Crimson Peak is being sold as haunted house horror, it’s more a romance with a bloody climax. In terms of del Toro’s oeuvre, Crimson Peak, which is slowly paced, fits alongside films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone more than Pacific Rim or Hellboy. Thematically, it examines the protagonist’s repressed feelings through supernatural fairy tales. And, similar to the director’s other films, Crimson Peak is also concerned with how the historical context impacts the characters’ motivations and feelings.
Set against the backdrop of the industrial revolution and the myths of early capitalism, Edith’s father refuses to fund Thomas’ entrepreneurial venture because his hands aren’t dirty enough; he hasn’t worked hard to earn his place among the elites. As the population migrates closer to the cities to find work, Thomas’ mansion, which lies far on the outskirts, has been neglected and forgotten. It’s the product of a feudal system that has been brushed aside.
Where fantasies in cinema and literature are typically an escape for the characters, a coping mechanism to withstand their harsh world, del Toro uses the mystical as a sinister reflection of everyday realities. The haunted house, which is explicitly said to represent the past, is not only an expression of past evils that Thomas and Lucille have committed, but a symbol of the shift from the feudal to the industrial. With his invention that mechanically extracts coal from the ground, Thomas is attempting to transition into this new world and seek riches at all costs.
But, primarily, this story is a playground for del Toro’s imagination, and of all the compositions he imagines in Crimson Peak, my favorite is a simple shot of two hands – one outstretched, the other hesitant to grab on. Because it conveys a character’s decision and emotion in a subtle gesture, it’s a moment that is formally rigorous and also emotionally raw, the rare profound i nstance in a film that otherwise favors aesthetics over pathos. Crimson Peak looks like a new color on the rainbow. The story, sadly, isn’t the pot of gold at the end of it.