Guillermo Del Toro is a master of his genre, which I don’t think I would describe outright as being horror or as being a fairy tale or anything else. He’s created a genre wholly unique to himself. He creates melodramas that are progressed by human behavior and human unpredictability and greed, worlds populated with sickening ghouls and monsters and ghosts who are more sympathetic than the human villains.
We live in an era of filmmaking where the “look” of a movie can be created in post-production, and the endlessly used color correction has made every action movie and every other genre film look the same, like they’ve all been selected from the same wheel of emotions. Guillermo Del Toro knows how to use color to manipulate our emotions and he does it with set design, filters and never takes an easy way out.
In Crimson Peak, the bulk of the action takes place in a gothic old house that is the aspiring wet dream of that era in spookiness. The roof and entire floors have rotted away and snow falls and gathers into a single pile in the entryway and leaves are scattered throughout. Copious amounts of red clay bleed through the walls and run down in thick puddles. Blue corridors and green doors, outlined with the blood-red of the clay.
We get to see a master in his domain, crafting a story and letting it live and breathe. Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak is his best movie to come out in years. He returns to the themes and emotions of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone to much success. Here, a young woman, Edith (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself in a dire situation, being taken advantage of by brother and sister Thomas and Lucille (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), in a house where things go bump in the night and figures take shape in the shadows.
Early on, within the first five minutes of the film, Edith as a young girl receives a prophetic warning from the ghost of her mother to, “Beware Crimson Peak.” This scene is important to the rest of the movie because if that scene had failed, if it had been too goofy or too self-serious, the rest of the movie could have been propped of for disaster. But the way the ghost creeps into the room and the direction of the edits, where we only catch quick glimpses, and are in the basic perspective of Edith, makes it absolutely chilling.
Edith marries Thomas and moves to his dilapidated, “Norma Desmond meets Miss Havisham” abode. They share their home with Lucille who seems to have a knack for interrupting them at their most intimate moments and keeping them apart. The house as an elevator which goes beneath the depths of the foundation to a symbolic hell, with bubbling red clay housed in concrete pools. And when it snows, it snows hard, making escape impossible.
One of the most common criticisms of Crimson Peak is that it isn’t scary. The thing is, it’s not a horror movie. It’s a drama. As Edith says of her own story she’s written, the ghosts are a metaphor for the past (much of Del Toro’s process as a storyteller is spoken by Edith, I think, where she explains her process of characters taking on a life of their own). The story is never meant to be an outright horror. But, even still, I totally disagree, because the movie is mostly devoid of obnoxious jump-scares and delights in the creepy shots of creatures standing just outside of the edge of reason, in the shadows, simply looming and projecting an aura of terror. If anything, the movie harkens back to the type of horror Edgar Allen Poe championed, atmospheric terror that reflects back on the horror of existence itself.
Crimson Peak’s strongest asset is its commitment to telling a story. While the spectacle surrounding the story is absolutely astounding, just a total marvel of special effects and craft, it would have been nothing if not anchored by a plot progression that was intriguing and characters that were realistic and even sympathetic even if they do act monstrously. The story is, at times, completely predictable. Some of the twists and turns, anyone can see coming from a mile away, but utilizing clichés to enrich a story isn’t a sin against filmmaking—it’s to create something familiar in order to subvert other expectations and put an audience on edge.
What happens at the end is shocking and thrilling to watch, only because we were invested from earlier on. If the story itself had been weak, or if it had been nothing but special effects to illicit cheap jumps, it would have been a bore to watch. Instead, I found myself genuinely caring about what happened, hoping everything would end okay.
Almost everything about Crimson Peak works. The house is a work of pure imagination, existing as a cross between the house in Silence of the Lambs with all the moths flying to and fro, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher with leaves scuttling around the mansion floor. This Halloween season, I definitely advise you to watch this film. It doesn’t insult your intelligence and instead wants to excite your passion for the macabre, letting the darkness run wild when the sun sets.