Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston & Jessica Chastain
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Released October 16, 2015
SPOILERS LIE AHEAD!!! MANY SPOILERS – ALL OF IT.
Crimson Peak virgins – stop reading if you don’t want me to ruin your October!
I don’t know if I’ve ever written a movie critique on the Thought Pantry before (all these years and not a single critique?!!) Crimson Peak was was one of my most highly anticipated films of 2015, so naturally after I watched it I wanted SO BADLY to talk about its beauties and downfalls with someone…anyone. That someone is you :) As all critiques go, the following are just the personal opinions of a Guillermo-obsessed, Hiddleston-gushing puppy-girl who has an affinity for gothic romance and horror.
I’ll highlight the major “juice” from beginning to end. I promise this next thing I’m bringing up is not a complete tangent, but did you ever watch Kill Bill 2? Remember when Elle Driver is about to buy the Hanzo sword from Budd? She asks him “How does this one compare to that? and Budd replies “If you’re gonna compare a Hanzo sword, you compare it to every other sword ever made… that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.” Well, on the contrary I feel like if I ever need to compare aspects of Crimson Peak with another movie, I only dare compare it to another Guillermo film. That other film will be Pan’s Labyrinth, the best damn thing Guillermo Del Toro has EVER written & directed and hands down my favorite fantasy-horror film of all time. But anyways, back to CP…
#1 The opening line of Crimson Peak is a ball of cheese (cause it’s cheesy and it stinks). It starts with 20-something year old writer Edith Cushing, daughter of a wealthy self-made industrialist Carter Cushing, saying something like “Ghosts are real.” I chuckled inside and reminded myself “Ang, this is a gothic romance which is bound to have a few frou-frou melodramatic lines. But just a few right? I mean, the whole movie can’t be like this…
#2 The ghosts in this film are so sweepingly conventional, bare-naked rib cage and all, that it’s terrifying. Terrifyingly bad. Edith loses her mother to an illness early in the movie and is immediately visited by her mother’s black, disfigured ghost. The upper half of Guillermo’s ghost reminded me of skeleton decoration that I saw around Value Village but worse because there’s a mist maker hidden somewhere inside ghost-mom’s ribs, blowing whisps of black…smoke?…body odor? Who knows. On the upside, when the ghost wraps its long shiny black talons over young-Edith’s shoulders, we get a glimpse of Guillermo’s genius and wonder….nay HOPE…that he will use more animatronics or complex makeup for his Crimson creatures.
#3 I’ll tell you what Guillermo got right (one of three main things) and that’s the big C. Costumes. He hit the nail on the head with the late Victorian fashion (late 1800s). What he does best with creatures and monsters he was able to translate onto constructed fabric with big ruffled bustles (big butts yo), intricate lace, black velvet drapery, tailored jackets, BALLOONING sleeves, creepy white nightgowns, etc. The colors in the beginning of the film are bold with mustard yellow and wine red making appearances on Wasikowska and Chastain. I couldn’t stop grinning at the sight of all that satin! Crunch, crunch, swoosh. It was so rich my eyes were having digestive problems.
A lot of attention went into the difference in costumes depending on location (when they’re in the bustling city of Buffalo, the colors are warm and popping…then it sneakily transitions to blacks & blues in haunted Allerdale Hall). I loved reading Kate Hawley’s approach to the costume design:
…we go to the world of Allerdale, we take the glasses off and we see the reality of the world that they’re in…It’s sun and moon, night and day, winter and summer. Polar opposites.
…Edith takes on the gothic qualities of the house. The house really dictated how to approach the costumes, from a sculptural point of view. I didn’t want to get myself caught up in details that didn’t feel like it meant anything, like generic lace or decoration. So all the details we made came from the symbolism of the characters or the house itself. The leaves on Lucille’s dress were constructed by hand, with a single piece of cording. And for Edith, (there were) motifs of flowers, because she blooms. It was about trying to create an atmosphere.
So there’s the two leading ladies with the juxtaposition of good and evil made plainly obvious through their costumes which I didn’t even mind. Edith wearing angelic hues of ivory and yellow with (80’s permed?) feathery blonde hair, prancing around in her diaphanous mumu of a night dress. Then there’s her cold, cryptic sister-in-law, Lucille, who makes her first appearance wearing the bloodiest-red satin dress you’ve ever seen playing the piano like a mofo. Right then and there I realized that THIS dress is what Chastain was meant to wear her whole life and is probably the best thing she will ever wear in her entire movie career.
#4 Now the best thing about this entire film was (no surprise here) the breathtaking SET DESIGN. Sad to say but this really is the film’s saving grace. When Edith walks into her new home (her new husband, Thomas Sharpe’s, family estate and the craziest haunted house ride she’ll ever experience), your heart just flutters. You can almost hear your pupils dilate. Of course it makes sense since Guillermo collaborated with production designer Tom Sanders who did Dracula and Braveheart. Every square inch of this twisted black house is a vision, enough to make Edgar Allan Poe tear up. Sanders explained that “the whole house was designed and built in layers. I felt I could bring the history of the family into each layer and show how each generation changed what the previous one had done.” The interior suddenly reminded me of Harlaxton Manor from the 1999 film The Haunting, full of black darted archways (waiting to drop and impale someone), a winding stair case (where someone could easily take a tumble), occasional chairs (that I could never afford), a fireplace (that probably lights itself up every night), lots of painted portraits (all those eyes judging your every move), geometric floor tiles (don’t take a black light to it), and (no surprise here cause it’s a key ingredient to a gothic living room) a large looming portrait of Lucille and Thomas’s dead mother looking haggard and grumpy as hell next to the grand piano. Guillermo explains:
The house is really a rotting representation of the family that has inhabited it, more than a haunted house in a traditional sense. It’s like a cage, a killing jar that you use to kill insects that you kill butterflies with. That’s the house. The house basically is a sinister, sinister trap.
#5 Speaking of a killing jar for insects, I will now segue into Guillermo’s use (or should I say super contrived attempts) at using metaphors in this film. I get it. This is a gothic (or “goffic”as I like to say) romance and therefore unapologetically full of common rhetorical devices (no different than Jane Eyre or Rebecca). What’s it gonna be Guillermo? We’ve already got the mansion symbolizing hidden secrets from the past. The house itself is built on a bubbling red clay mine that literally BLEEDS into the snow’s surface all around the estate (kind of like a giant tampon…gross). But metaphorically speaking, this is a sinking crime scene where the red clay can symbolize the sealing, or marriage, between Edith and Thomas which was always, from the start, cursed and built on blood & deceit.
Now I don’t know about you, but I like my metaphors a little less cliche. Why not let the audience bring a little something to the table? Earlier in the movie while they’re still in Buffalo, New York, Edith and Lucille have a conversation about moths and butterflies. Edith points out a bunch of dead and dying butterflies on the ground which prompts Lucille to say “Where I live we only have black moths which are not as pretty but far tougher.” Edith asks her “What do the moths eat?” and Lucille replies “Butterflies.” Ok…so Edith is the butterfly…Lucille is the tough moth…scary mean Lucille is gonna eat Edith alive. Meh, you can do better than this Guillermo. Also his attempts at bringing up moths…lots of them…randomly throughout the house felt very unnecessary. It was like a Burton film…what the hell…just throw in another pumpkin, maybe a bat, a scarecrow.
The metaphors get a tiny better after the characters reach Allerdale when Edith comes across a yappy stray dog – a papillon – and decides to keep it. Lucille seems very displeased because it belonged to one of Thomas’s late wives (yea she murdered all of them, next!) and they apparently tried to get rid of the fluffy thing a while back. But low and behold, it’s still alive after surviving on scraps. Papillon means “butterfly” in French, so tying back to the previous metaphor, Edith and the dog are one and the same. They’re both fragile in appearance but tough cookies on the inside. I think that Guillermo wanted us so badly to view Edith as a strong female survivor rather than a mere damsel (even though the fight scene between her and Lucille at the end was laughable…I just wanted to hand Edith a pistol so we could skip the painful cat-mouse-ghost-ah! chase altogether).
#6 Speaking of the end scene, we return once again to the matter of ghosts in this film and how lamely they were constructed. Seeing Hiddleston’s emo ghost at the end, which ended up distracting Lucille long enough for Edith to bash her head in, reminded me so much of the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or at least all the movie versions that I’ve seen of it. Whispy, grey, and mediocre. Here’s what the ghosts in this film looked like:
And then we remember the masterful creatures that Guillermo is capable of summoning like in Pan’s Labyrinth:
Crimson Peak’s CGI-heavy ghosts are simply no match for Pan’s animatronics. And when Guillermo does use special effects, I prefer when he does it sparingly. When I watched Pan’s Labyrinth for the first time about 8 or 9 years ago, I was utterly blown away and left in awe; I could really feel the love that went into the (latex foam) Faun or the forever iconic saggy-skinned Pale Man (inspired by Guillermo’s own weight loss!) and have highly respected Guillermo since then.
#7 While we’re on the topic of comparing, I need to point out that Pan’s Labyrinth had the most beautiful musical score composed by Javier Navarrete which was based entirely around a haunting lullaby (nominated for an academy award) and Crimson Peak…did not. Aside from Lucille’s sporadic (albeit very talented) piano playing scenes, none of the music in this film affected me, got stuck in my head, stood out, or even tempted me to download it. Was there even a musical score? I…don’t remember.
#8 Unlike the music, Guillermo’s pick of actors was, save maybe Charlie Hunnam, golden. Chastain, Hiddleston and Wasikowska are all highly respectable in their own rights – a threesome not to be reckoned with no matter what century they’re in – which gave me every reason to think that this film was gonna be KILLER (pun intended). But that’s where the beauty ends. While I approved of the cast and got the sense that they were giving their all in this film, Chastain and Wasikowska’s performances were (whether intentional or not) flat. The script was flat. It wasn’t AS bad as the lines delivered in Star Wars Episode 2 (when Anakin tries to flirt with Padme but all I wanted to do was swallow a bunch of lit matches) but it reminded me of that. Chastain pulled off the psycho, steely cold sister-in-law from hell pretty well, but something about her delivery felt off…like watching a half-dead fish deliver lines really, really slowly (I’m not even talking about her god-awful accent). Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) who plays the dashing gentleman perfectly begins a relationship with Edith at an unrealistic and rushed pace; it was hard to believe that this smart, independently spirited, eff-romance-I’m-gonna-write-ghost-stories! girl really does fall for the first guy who dances the waltz with her. She also manages to ignore all the telltale signs of a messed up marriage by (ignoring? forgetting?) all the ugly red ghosts popping out of nowhere and then dismisses all the blood that she’s coughing up. Why yes I think I WILL have more unbelievably bitter tea that leaves my tongue completely numb…thank you Lucille.
Probably the worst part of it all was learning that everyone in this film is exactly as they seem, and your suspicions turn out to be dead right about…everything. Oh, does it seem like Lucille is really into her brother because of the way she dolefully looks at him at every turn and hates his new wife? Could they be…involved?! Yes, they’re totally doing it and I’m sorry Guillermo but Game of Thrones beat you to it – incestual brother-sister relationships were so 2011. Finding out that this (and Lucille’s murderous streak, gasp!) were the major secrets and “plot twists” of the film left me feeling…hungry. Does anyone want to watch Pan’s Labyrinth with me?
All in all, I had a love affair with the film’s set design and felt like it was visually, as someone said on Rotten Tomato, a feast for the eyes. But aside from that, the costumes, and the view of Hiddleston’s butt, I was disappointed and almost wish this was a Spanish film because at least the language barrier would’ve been a distraction from the obvious turn of events. But it’s nothing a new and exciting trailer of Star Wars can’t fix I suppose :)