All of Guillermo del Toro’s films are, in some way, tales of the gothic. Like his influence (and failed adaptee) H.P. Lovecraft, they are also hybrids, so it is not surprising if the gothic tendency is not the first quality that springs to mind when considering his work. But it is there, running like a subterranean stream through films that feature a kind of art cinema historical realism (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) or that seem genre exercises in fantasy (Hellboy and Hellboy II, Pan’s Labyrinth) or sci-fi (Mimic, Pacific Rim). In fact, looking at his filmography, it is possible to wonder if all these categories are indeed fused for him – while horror is the overarching category that captures all of his work, most of the films fall into at least two categories. (Blade II, for example, is a horror film, but also has elements of sci-fi and fantasy. Mimic could be considered sci-fi horror. Pan’s Labyrinth is art horror fantasy. And on and on). So what is surprising, given this trajectory, is that Crimson Peak is not a hybrid, and that it is avowedly gothic through and through. Like most of his other films, it is a tale of ghosts, of the dead who refuse to remain dead, and of the vampiric need for the blood of others to guarantee personal survival.
Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak is the story of an escape from a traumatic reality into a fantastical space where, it seems, dreams can come true. In fact, it could almost function as a kind of sequel to Pan’s Labyrinth, as while it lacks that prior film’s grim historical specificity (and outcome), it focuses on a young woman, just on the far side of adolescence, who also seeks to escape a personal tragedy, but instead of forming a closed, safe interior universe, instead ventures outward, both physically and emotionally, leaving her country and falling in love for the first time. Pan’s Labyrinth was a story about the dangers inherent to trusting that the world will support you; Crimson Peak is about the risks of trusting others, after the continuation of the world itself has been assured. The story will be very familiar to anyone who has had a passing encounter with 19th century literature. Our heroine, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is an aspiring writer of gothic tales and the only daughter of a self-made magnate in 19th century Buffalo, New York. Her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) is visited by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a vaguely aristocratic young Englishman of seemingly decrepit lineage, who tries to interest Cushing père in funding his mud harvesting and brick making scheme. Carter, ever cagey, doesn’t trust Sharpe at first because he is not the up from nothing American type that he can identify with, and then later because of some nasty details learned through the aid of a private detective (the distinctively seedy Burn Gorman). Not thrilled that Sharpe has been making a romantic impression on his daughter, and armed with his evidence of skulduggery, Carter confronts Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and writes them a check to send them on their way, on the condition that Sharpe thoroughly breaks Edith’s heart before leaving. He does so, humiliatingly, at a dinner party, but before they can leave town, someone bashes Carter’s head in. Edith, newly orphaned and without anyone to protect her from the Sharpe siblings except her friend and doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who is too discreet, respectful of Edith’s will (and perhaps hurt at being passed over) to intervene, falls back into Thomas’s arms, and soon is newly married and travelling to his vast manse in the wilds of the English countryside for a new life with he and his sister. Sister Lucille seems strangely jealous of Edith, the house is a monstrous wreck, and haunted to boot. Soon, Edith is wondering what is kept secret in the supposedly too dangerous to visit basement, but before much can be discovered, she inexplicably falls ill. Are the mysterious visitations from bloody women portents of some vile past? Are Edith’s sudden health issues the sign of foul play? (I think you don’t need to read the tea leaves to find that answer). Eventually, all sorts of degenerate yet predictable “secrets” will be revealed, but does Edith make it out alive? Is the love of Thomas true, or will Dr. Alan reemerge and press his case? For the answers, tune in tomorrow… (Or simply imagine, as you are probably right).
Crimson Peak plays out as a kind of cut and paste mashup of the Illustrated Classic’s versions of Wuthering Heights, The Turn of the Screw, with a few panels from Great Expectations thrown in for good measure. It is well done, and the attention to period detail, and character filigree, is impressive. And, although the first third of the film, set in Buffalo, is far more interesting than the high gothic doings that comprise most of the rest, and although del Toro’s ghosts look crummy, are not scary, and seem attuned to the worst trends in horror films from the past decade or so, the movie is still affecting and moving in parts, as it does plug us back into what makes the gothic an affective and disturbing form. The acting is good, and helps sell the weaker parts, with Wasikowska being particularly winning and sympathetic (can the gothic exist without a woman at its core?) and her dad Beaver a nuanced standout as well. Beyond that, it is not particularly memorable or powerful. What is fascinating about del Toro as a director is also what is frustrating about him – his films are quite uneven. He’s made a few very good films (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), many solid and thought provoking entertainments (Blade II, Cronos, Crimson Peak) and a few semi-stinkers (Mimic, Pacific Rim). He doesn’t tend to write characters with deep or complex psychology, and he rarely surprises with novel techniques or with narrative originality. Just as his imagination is clearly visual first and foremost, it is citational as well; he tends to ransack other films and literature for character types, plot devices, and generic situations. What is surprising, though, is that despite this, each of his films has a distinctive flavor, whether they are art films that we would think more “personal” or genre moneymakers. Despite the hoariness of his material, he is totally sincere; the familiarity of his references feels warm, and comfortable, rather than tired or lazy. Indeed, even though many of his films are “generic” in this way, del Toro takes considerable care to make sure all the details are right and that there is a fidelity to the original within his elaborations. Yes, he tends to focus on the surface, but he is meticulous in his construction, and seems to believe that through detail something larger can emerge. For his faithfulness to the source material to matter, del Toro needs to understand it, not just intellectually, but emotionally, and not just for modern audiences, but for the original ones too – and it is clear that he does. This is why he never winks at the audience, why his references are completely straight, and unironic, as for him (and often for his characters) the imagination is a vehicle that provides an escape into, not just an escape from, and where we are carried is just as important as the fact that we are carried away. Unlike the majority of cynical image makers, who mine the history of representations for shorthand notations in an attempt to convey emotions and meanings that they are too limited to create, del Toro is instead recalling – his cinema is a cinema of memory, but the subject is his own memory, the child-like delight evident in the beauty and directness of his imaginings a window to what he finds important morally and emotionally. del Toro is an anachronism in the sense that he reminds one of those journeyman directors of yore, toiling within the studio system, who turned out uneven product and inconsistent art, and who never rose to the rank of household name or avatar of “greatness,” but who nonetheless, in their ubiquity, in their striving, in their simple desire to work and solve problems of visual communication, helped build the grammar of the visual language we speak with today, and by the by constructed a palace of dreams vast and rich enough to escape into, perhaps, like del Toro, forever. Crimson Peak does not do anything new, nor does it overly impress us in any particular way, but at the same time, it helps us remember the stories we thought we had forgotten. Even if this remembering does not linger far beyond the end credits, in the time of our transport it reminds us that we are haunted by the ghosts of past representations for a reason. The ghosts are important, as when we are haunted, we are, like Edith, learning how to navigate the world of humans by remembering those who came before. And, also like Edith, such remembering ultimately allows us to survive, able to become the author of the story of our own lives.