October 27, 2015

A Haunted House Oozing Excess: Crimson Peak

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Guillermo Del Toro is a talented and visionary filmmaker. There is an earnestness and an excitement to his imagination which comes across clearly on screen — his films are like pages straight out of a sketchbook. But his Achilles’ heel has always been his interest in his production design, fantastical sets and beloved monsters — to the point of sacrificing emotion and character development. There is often an abundance of weird creatures in his work which always threaten to overwhelm his provocative ideas, however, Crimson Peak, surprisingly, contains none of them. A few ghouls and skeletons aside, this film is devoid of any fauns, demons, kaijus or aliens. The main candy for the director in this piece is the lavish haunted house of its title.

One look at the place would send any sane person running for the hills. It has creaky, dilapidated, Agatha Christie-style architecture and would be impossible for any creditor to repossess — nobody in their right mind would live in such a house save for the family that has owned it for some fifteen generations. That family in this case is made up of siblings Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). The mansion crumbles in England while they search across America for investors in their clay-mining machine. Their Cumbrian estate lies on rich, blood-red clay deposits, which they hope to extract through the use of a Rube Goldberg-style contraption that could only have come from Del Toro’s mind.

They find some luck with Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), a wealthy aristocrat who — though reluctant to fund such an enterprise — happens to have a very attractive daughter, Edith (Mia Wasikowska). Petite and spirited, she appears to have wandered straight out of a Jane Austen novel. Edith and Tom soon fall madly in love, smitten at first sight, and there is a very enjoyable if foreseeable scene where they waltz around a ballroom full of corsets and gowns, a candle clasped between their hands, without letting the flame be extinguished. Many of these scenes are imports from Edith Wharton and other aforementioned authors, but they are so sumptuously filmed and the sets so opulent, one is immediately swept away in the lushness of it all. Say what you will about Del Toro’s faults as a crafter of narratives, he can fill the frame with vivid, scuttling life better than nearly any other filmmaker today.

Then there’s the matter of Lucille’s vicious stare, which catches the attention of Carter Cushing’s physician, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam — what?). He notices an evil glint and a madness in the frizzy-haired spinster’s eye. Like the house, one look would tell anyone with there’s a wicked witch about, but part of the fun is watching Chastain, playing against type, lose herself in such a character. Remember her in Tree of Life? That part could be her Glinda the Good to her Elphaba here — all that’s missing is the green face paint. The performances are charming all around; Wasikowska is always delightful and so is Hiddleston, and together they make a believable pair.

But, circumstances being what they are, this is a haunted house story. No, rather, this is a Haunted House story with capital Hs, one in which all the Scary Moments are emphasized with a screech of strings and a crack of skeletal bones on the soundtrack. The gaudy approach reminds me of what Scorsese did in Shutter Island, purposefully upping the scary music and punctuating every menace with distinct visual cues. The difference is, whereas that film had a twist ending and several layers to it, you pretty much always know where Crimson Peak is heading — it’s much less psychologically complex. It means to be more of a trifle, which means we have to see Edith whisked off to the depreciated old house under the arm of her new husband Tom and her evil sister-in-law Lucille, wearing an ancient family heirloom — a ring with a bright shiny ruby in it. Do you think Lucille might have wanted Tom to marry into money?

Then excess takes over and the film flies off the rails. Whereas the first half of the film is good, very enjoyable fun and I couldn’t wait to see more, by the second half I was growing restless and wished the film would stop leading me in circles. Edith begins seeing ghosts, and claiming to be sick, but Lucille insists she must stay, as the pile of bodies that began when Tom came into Edith’s life, continues to grow. For brother and sister, Tom and Lucille are given  many surprisingly intimate conferences with each other. In earnest, it’s more fun watching Tom and Edith meet and court each other, than it is to wander the haunted old manor with Edith, where red syrup oozes between the bricks — it’s only the clay, says Tom — and del Toro loses himself in the weeds of his own fantasy.

But then, that set design — production designer Thomas Sanders deserves an Oscar for his work, almost undoubtedly the richest of the year — and that cinematography, though.

Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].