There’s a fine line between honouring a tried and true literary and cinematic template and being a laborious, pastiche, intertextual movie sundae; Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim is far better in concept than in execution. Crimson Peak though, is the perfect result of Del Toro’s obsession with Gothic Romance. After years of being intravenously fed with a stream of Gothic Romance texts, Del Toro’s DNA has changed, and the resulting work feels like you’re watching something projected out of his soul.
Every frame drips with mood and intent. Beginning in New York City, in the midst of the industrial revolution, the entire setting feels freshly sanded, precise and exuding the glow of wood fire in winter. When Edith returns to England with Thomas’ family titanic family home feels live the inside of a hive. The walls seep decay, and the sagging cocoon shapes encroach upon you. It’s really one of the most striking sets that you’ll ever see; and the fact that tangible, crafted with such patience and mastery make you feels as lost as the characters in the bowels of an old beast. Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen have a field day in the lavish sets, emphasising that the style compounds the substance.
Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins do a sensational job of subverting the genre in two significant ways. Firstly, Gothic Romance often renders the female heroine powerless after any kind of sex act. Instead Edith (Wasikowska) takes control of Thomas (Hiddleston) when they’re stranded at the store outpost and the resulting love making is awakening for Thomas. The second is that the father figures in Gothic Romance are often way too flippant with their daughter’s hand (nee Hyman) and seem to offload them like you would an old couch. Again utilising the pragmatic, quietly strong presence of Jim Beaver as Edith’s father Carter Cushing, Del Toro creates a man extremely suspicious of the Sharpe’s and the old world’s sense of entitlement. There’s a hint of fresh wounds from colonialist shackles that seeps into every exchange. Del Toro, and Edith incidentally, say that Crimson Peak isn’t a ‘ghost story’ per se, but rather a story with ghosts in it. The final masterstroke of Crimson Peak is the humour. Throughout the film, there are laugh land mines that jab at the genre from a place of pure endearment, much like Austin Powers LOVES James Bond.
Del Toro’s casting of Wasikowska and Hiddleston touches you in that special Only Lovers Left Alive place in your heart. Hiddleston drips with charm, but as he orbits his sister, he unconsciously bends to reveal her tight grip on his strings. Once he meets Edith though, there’s a spark of a different kind of girl than he’s experienced before. Wasikowska’s Edith is a Bronte heroine, with a dash of Ripley from Alien. Del Toro empowers her as a writer and defender of the genre in a delightful and not saccharin way. In the face of the ghouls burst forth from the spectral realm, she’s able to be both frightened and fearless.
Lady Lucille, played by the regal Jessica Chastain, is a serpent of a woman that feels coiled around Thomas, slithering around the lair of the Sharpe manor. It’s not the typical warm or determined woman that attracts casting directors toward Chastain (Interstellar, Zero Dark Thirty, Mama) instead she has to go into uncharted performance territory swanning about with menacing theatricality.
Crimson Peak does for Gothic Romance what Tarantino films do to their respective genres; they supersede homage and become re-original.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Edith Cushing: MW
Lady Lucille Sharpe: JC
Sir Thomas Sharpe: TH
Dr. Alan McMichael: CH
Carter Cushing: JB