I find myself thinking of a little-remembered Kate Bush song called "Hammer Horror" - part love letter, part fond goodbye to the world of the rapturously seedy melodramas that once made the reputation of the British horror specialist studio. But those immune to its charms, those that don't really "get" why Hammer were Hammer, would look at Ms. Bush’s song bewilderingly.
Well, the exact same thing is at the heart of Guillermo del Toro’s new film, Crimson Peak. It’s an exquisitely realized love letter to the long-gone halcyon days of gothic horror, of scare subordinated to story or mood, of lavish visuals as signifiers of their own, as important as plot or performance. But it’s one that those not already in on the joke, so to speak, won’t “get”.
Before we move any further: Crimson Peak is also a somewhat annoyingly derivative addendum to the Mexican director’s work. Its plucky heroine, played pitch-perfect by Mia Wasikowska, is as much a prisoner of a labyrinth as Ivana Baquero’s Ofelia was in the director’s auteur breakthrough, Pan’s Labyrinth. And no matter how much you look at Crimson Peak as a bravura take on the stylized likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava’s giallos and Terence Fisher’s hyper-romantic horrors, it’s also a clear descendent of Mr. Del Toro’s award-winning dark fantasy.
Ms. Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing is a preternaturally modern woman of early 20th century America, attracted to the glamorous if faded old-world stateliness of English aristocracy. Her whirlwind courtship and fall head over heels for the ruined but dashing baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston in full matinee idol mode) could be seen as a confession of the devotion and debt that genre literature owes to the British founding fathers, with Mary Shelley and Jane Austen being directly quoted in Mr. del Toro and Matthew Robbins’ sly script, one where even the most apparently throwaway piece plays a specific part.
(Yes, yes, Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, I know, with the sinister governess being replaced by Jessica Chastain’s haughty, one-step-ahead-of-the-action sister Lucille.)
For all its lush visuals and romantic accoutrements, though, Crimson Peak seems content with being an exquisite throwback to the golden age of gothic horror, an overwrought yet perfectly controlled melodrama presented with all the luxury Hollywood money can buy — and ironically money is also the hinge on which the plot turns. What Edith reads as love from Thomas is purely an utilitarian need for money to keep the dilapidated family manse going; the heart of the story lies in the opposition between an atavistic attachment to keep a dead past alive and going (Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe’s ancestral home, and its red clay pits) and a clear-eyed desire to move forward into the future. An added irony is that what Mr. del Toro is doing here moves nothing forward. Its bloody ending, as future and past fight in the shape of Edith and Lucille, merely underlines that.
You can’t just dismiss Crimson Peak as a mere formal exercise, though. There’s too much heartfelt sincerity, too much commitment to make it “the best gothic ghost story ever”, too much lavish knowledge poured on every nook and cranny of Tom Sanders’ meticulous production design and DP Dan Laustsen’s sumptuous, velvety cinematography.
This is clearly a passion project for the director, one to which everyone involved clearly responded with equal care and attention, and it’s one that (thankfully) flies in the face of studio focus groups and test screenings — it’s a film out of time and out of place, something that only someone with clout can pull off in these days of marketing-driven projects. Mr. del Toro clearly can (even though Crimson Peak is his second box-office under-achiever in a row, after the deliriously gonzo Godzilla-vs-Transformers Pacific Rim), and that alone is enough to pay attention to it. But it’s not clear this is a film that will get under the skin of anyone not previously into gothic romances. Pan’s Labyrinth (like his earlier Spanish Civil War ghost story The Devil’s Backbone) had a stronger connection to reality that the new film replaces with a stylized take on highly codified genre tropes.
Like Kate Bush’s song, Crimson Peak is not for everyone. But if you “get it”, you’ll be happy you visited.
US, 2015, 119 minutes
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by Mr. del Toro and Matthew Robbins; cinematographer Dan Laustsen; music by Fernando Velázquez; production designer Tom Sanders; costume designer Kate Hawley; film editor Bernat Vilaplana; visual effects supervised by Dennis Berardi; produced by Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mr. del Toro and Callum Greene, for Legendary Pictures and DDY Productions
Screened October 19th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening