Once again, I find myself disappointed in everyone.
Guillermo del Toro has released a masterful horror film just in time for Halloween, but people are ignoring it in favor of Goosebumps. While Goosebumps is a missed nostalgia opportunity, del Toro has revived a dead genre and has shown everyone why he remains one of the great working effects filmmakers in the same vein as Peter Jackson.
Maybe the problem lay in the marketing. Peak has been endlessly promoted as a ghost story. It’s not. Peak is a highly stylized remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca. Like the unnamed character in Rebecca, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a would be author, falls in love with a mysterious aristocrat. Tom Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) marries her and takes her to live with him in his dilapidated mansion on top of a red clay mine. The house is sinking into the clay and gives the unmistakable image of bleeding walls. But thanks to visions of specters, Edith finds that there is more to Tom and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) than they have let on.
Maybe the other problem lay in the fact that, like Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak is meant to be an examination of a genre that no one but horror fans thinks about anymore. Peak is probably the most overt gothic film since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.
Most people, if they think about the gothic aesthetic at all, think about women wearing black laced clothes and dark lipstick or offensively skinny men who lack the ability to brush their hair. But that’s not what the genre truly examined. Gothic fiction gained popularity in the 19th century as the old aristocracy was dying. What had once been powerful families were increasingly living in the remains of their own past, surrounded by decay. It was the perfect opportunity to point out that, no matter how long they clung, they were as susceptible to death as those members of the “lower classes.” What made them even more prominent is that they introduced the idea that the monsters of peasant folk tales (ghosts, vampires, werewolves) were equal threats to the dying upper class. It made for effective social commentary in a rapidly changing world – changes that we’re still going through.
Rereading that last paragraph, I realize I accidentally summarized the artistic point of Crimson Peak. del Toro revives the genre by ensuring to include everything about it that made those previous works so effective.
He also gets the visual cues just right. The film’s editing is very quick, with abrupt jump cuts to different characters in completely different settings. There are irises onto important objects and there are wipes like there were in old Italian horror. It has the same feeling as reading a Victorian penny dreadful, which is the whole point. It’s the first time I can recall that a film has felt like reading a novel, and I mean that as a compliment. The film is rooted in the old pulp horror fiction that inspired the first generation of horror filmmakers and it’s appropriate that del Toro used that approach in his film.
The mansion the Sharps inhabit is also a wonderful exercise of design. It has the appropriate look of a decayed Victorian mansion and also suggests a place much larger than we could imagine. It’s the sort of playground del Toro loves to create and strikes the appropriate tension between what’s visible and what’s not visible.
But a film should not live on its aesthetic, and Crimson Peak also has great performances to support its themes. Jessica Chastain’s Lucille was the standout for me. Her actions speak volumes about the sexual subtext between her brother and her. It’s very reminiscent of the performance Hitchcock or Lynch would demand, where the actor could convey a deep sense of pain without saying a word. Wasikowska also fits the Mina Harker role nicely. She’s not just a victim but a strong woman who’s very aware of what’s happening to her. That makes the film scarier as we try to see her get out.
del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a successful horror film that reintroduces audiences to a lot of tropes and techniques that great directors used to scare audiences. It’s an artistic triumph that captures some of the great horror techniques of the past. But I guess audiences are ignoring it because of how traditional it is. As the last five years have demonstrated, they would prefer jump scares on YouTube than actual scares that explore the complexities of people and their desires. Perhaps del Toro’s biggest fault lies in his inability to take a look at the future. Still, those of us who respect the evolution of the horror genre will forever be grateful to people like del Toro.