Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Review: Crimson Peak (dir. Guillermo Del Toro)


Ghosts, family secrets, madness, an inquisitive heroine, a disintegrating country seat complete with imposing architecture, fading aristocracy, monstrous machines, glorious costumes, bad weather and HUNDREDS of giant moths – there probably hasn’t been a more self-consciously Gothic film in years. As Mark Kermode points out in his review, Crimson Peak is steeped in the tradition of terror, and Del Toro subverts the Gothic genre even as he luxuriates in its excess.

Part of the Mondo poster, unveiled at Comic Con

The cinematography is superb. Sumptuous imagery of fragile, fluttering moths and butterflies exaggerate the stifling sense of death and decay that hangs in the atmosphere at Allerdale Hall like the thick, English fog that enshrouds it. Spirits dissolve into the air like plumes of smoke, leaving behind an effervescent trace, bound to a particular place or emotion. Haunted topography is central to the conceptualisation of spirits in this film: ghosts function allegorically throughout, as emblems of memory and trauma. They are, as the protagonist Edith explains, 'metaphors for the past'.

The plot adheres fairly closely to the standard Gothic formula: a young woman falls for a charming, mysterious Baronet, regardless of her father’s disapproval and an obscure, prophetic warning from beyond the grave ('Beware of Crimson Peak!'). The American heroine is whisked away to a remote corner of the Lake District to live in her new husband’s crumbling mansion. Enter creepy sister-in-law, who keeps insisting on making endless pots of questionable-tasting tea, because that’s just what British people do when things feel awkward. Several horrifying apparitions later, Edith decides to investigate the forbidden parts of the house and, predictably, she uncovers a few skeletons in the family closet.

Lady Lucille Sharpe: part Mrs. Dancers, part Bertha Mason. Proud owner of the ultimate 'resting bitch face'

There are shades of Walpole, Radcliffe, Poe and the Brontes here, but also a nod towards more contemporary Gothic texts, such as Virginia Andrews's claustrophobic Flowers in the Attic. Even the protagonist's name, Edith Cushing, may be a subtle reference to the late and great legend of Hammer Horror, Sir Peter Cushing. Perhaps that's a bit of a stretch, but this is a Gothic film by a director who knows his Gothic, so there are surely no coincidences!




Crucially, Edith is not your average Gothic heroine. She may look like a classically Radcliffian damsel with her flowing locks and fluttering nightdress, but Del Toro wastes no time in demonstrating that she is anything but an archetype. An aspiring novelist, Edith is denied the right to be taken seriously as a female writer in the late-Victorian publishing industry. When compared to ‘spinster’ Jane Austen by an odious socialite, Edith remarks: ‘Actually, I’d rather be Mary Shelley. She died a widow’, which highlights Del Toro’s absolute engagement with the Gothic tradition. Furthermore, she takes great pains to dissociate herself from perceived sentimentality, resolving to type out her manuscript on her father's typewriter, lest her handwriting prove ‘too feminine’ in the eyes of her critics.

Speaking of eyes, there is a recurring motif of seeing and not seeing in Crimson Peak: things that lurk just out of sight, waiting to appear ‘when the time is right’. Early photography is introduced at various moments in the narrative to remind us that we are never seeing the full picture. A still image of the past does not tell the full story, but a gramophone might...




Like all gifted filmmakers, Del Toro understands the pivotal role of sound in the art of instilling fear. Allerdale Hall seems to come alive with an eerie orchestra of sounds, some human, some less so: rustling moth wings, violent gusts of wind, mournful piano rhymes, clanging water pipes, the whir of industrial machinery, creaks and groans as the house sinks deeper into the ‘Profondo Rosso’ clay (hence the title of the film) - all of these amalgamate to form a cacophony of noise that accompanies Fernando Velazquez's haunting, wistful score.

Like the blood-red earth that seeps through the floorboards of the Sharpe household (themes of nature reclaiming space and the dissolution of aristocracy) Crimson Peak leaves behind a vivid stain that will haunt your thoughts long after the credits roll. This film sees Del Toro making a triumphant return to what he does best and the handful critics who complained about the lack of ‘scare factor’ have clearly missed the point. As Edith suggests at the very beginning: it is not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts in it. Crimson Peak is not a straightforward horror movie, but rather a collage of familiar Gothic motifs with added depth and modernity. A decade after his critically-acclaimed fairy-tale Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro presents another masterclass in Gothic cinema that is enchanting and disturbing in equal measure. And if this doesn’t convince you to see Crimson Peak immediately, then this picture certainly will:

YES!!! ALL THE YES!!!


Carly Stevenson is a PhD researcher studying Gothic literature and poetry at the University of Sheffield. She is currently wandering around a haunted mansion looking for ghosts and/or Tom Hiddleston...

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