Crimson Peak and Why I Can’t Quit Guillermo Del Toro
One of the side effects of love is an inability to view the actions of those you love objectively. It’s not simply a matter of automatic approval; If they do something wrong you are more inclined to give the ones you love the benefit of the doubt, to see things from their perspective, to not simply assume the worst about them. And when they do something controversial or debatable,you view their actions in the context of how you have come to love them. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s how love works. It’s how humans operate.
What I’m saying is, you might well hate Crimson Peak. But I am incapable of viewing it objectively. Everything Guillermo del Toro has ever done has nestled so perfectly in the wrinkle of my brain that produces delight. Critics adored Pan’s Labyrinth, liked Pacific Rim, and have been bitterly divided over Crimson Peak. I could not begin to tell you how critics see any differences between those three films. I love them all the same.
I suppose if I make a serious effort to separate myself from the material, I can do the math. Pan’s Labyrinth combined a simple and dead serious war story with a tantalizing but not overdone fantasy, and deftly balanced the two, creating a tale that could be seen as either a straightforward fable or the tragic story of a girl desperate to escape from trauma. Pacific Rim was so filled to the brim with simple geeky genre pleasures that could easily be categorized as dumb fun (a categorization I fervently dispute, but that’s for another time). Crimson Peak is the sort of headlong dive into silliness that can only end in either disaster or triumph. Obviously, many see it as clearly the former. But I can’t begin to put myself in a position to understand them. God help me, I loved it. When I hear del Toro is cooking something, I don’t question it. I just shut up and enjoy it.
I admit that I’m a sucker for great visuals. Visual creativity goes a long way for me. Not just special effects of course; in fact, Crimson Peak is weak in that regard. There are a number of ghosts and ghouls that appear in this film, all rendered in underwhelming CGI. As a red rotting skeleton woman crawled across a dark hallway floor groaning for Mia Wasikowska to run for her life, I found myself missing the incredible makeup used for the creatures from from Hellboy 2.
So del Toro’s creature creation was on the fritz this time around. Why did I like Crimson Peak so much, then?
Well, imagine the a movie filled to the brim with ghosts, walls oozing red (it’s just the estate’s unique red clay, we’re assured) where blood comes out of the faucet (sorry, clay), and lots and lots and lots of stabbing and face smashing and extraordinarily bloody violence (or is it clay?). Del Toro knows this material is absurd and he approaches it with glee. I could only hate this material if it was presented with self-serious solemnity. Del Toro takes the opposite approach. This is glum, grim material, made with del Toro’s special sort of joy.
The plot concerns a young writer named Edith (Mia Wasikowska) who falls for a British aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). He lives with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in a manor that produces a very red clay that he hopes to sell on the merits of its very redness. Unsurprisingly, he is quite poor.
Edith marries Thomas and moves in with him despite crystal clear warnings from her mother’s rotting ghost to stay away from “Crimson Peak”. Again, consider that sentence. Does it make you want to see the movie? I hope so. It would win me over if I wasn’t already won.
They move into his manor in England. Oh, what a glorious manor it is. When he carries her across the threshold, they are greeted by autumn leaves falling into the entrance hall, courtesy of rot-induced sunroof. Thomas steps too hard on a floorboard, and red ooze seeps up through. Yes, clay. But come on. Del Toro wanted to create a manor that bleeds. He achieves it, and has fun with the “logic” of it all by providing an utterly goofy explanation for it. This isn’t the dumb silliness of a lesser goof. It is a gloriously goofy filmmaker let loose in a toy store of gothic horror. Everything looks magnificent and feels right. The house breathes and bleeds and ghosts crawl through the shadows. For me, that would have been enough.
But hark, there’s a story to go along with the Grand Guignol. Edith can’t seem to get Thomas to consummate the marriage (red flag). She attempts to seduce him in a room full of puppet heads (red flag). Lucille interrupts them (EDITH, RED FLAG). For some reason she seems to want to prevent their physical coupling. Edith’s greatest skill seems to be an inability to see or hear clear warning signs. Or in this case, ghosts repeatedly screaming “GET OUT”, her sister-in-law’s quest to prevent her from getting any, her walls oozing perpetually with, heh, clay, her husband trying to make a living out of the clay, and (I think this is the last one) the fact that he’s into puppets. Edith is undeterred. Edith takes Thomas to the post office to at last have sex with him in privacy.
The post office.
At this point, I remembered Roger Ebert’s review of Pulp Fiction: “I knew it was either one of the year’s best films, or one of the worst. Tarantino is too gifted a filmmaker to make a boring movie, but he could possibly make a bad one.”
I’m not saying Crimson Peak is as good as Pulp Fiction; it’s the latter portion of that quote that I’m focusing on. Del Toro will never, ever make a boring film, but he could plausibly construct a series of lurid set pieces with no coherence or story to hold them together. But somehow, the story del Toro tells in Crimson Peak coalesces into something perfect for its gorgeous silliness. Lucille and Thomas are, shockingly, hiding Very Dark Secrets. Edith is expressly forbidden to go to certain rooms and, shockingly, finds out some of these Very Dark Secrets.
Guillermo del Toro is not a one MacGuffin filmmaker. Reveals tumble over each other one after another, and the ending is less a single twist than an untying of a simmering, scandalous knot. Along the way, there is ample bloodletting, as Very Dark Secrets threaten to be revealed. Not all the oozing redness can be clay. One character suffers an unfortunate fate in the shower, and you can almost hear del Toro cackling as blood runs down the drain. Hitchcock should never have revealed that his reason for filming Psycho in black-and-white was that red blood running down a drain was too gross. He tempted generations of descendants to see for themselves. He wasn’t wrong.
Charlie Hunnam, a good actor I like quite a bit, has some scenes as Alan, a nice doctor friend of Edith’s. Poor Alan is in the wrong movie. He belongs in Downton Abbey, not here. He has no idea what he’s getting into. I feel compelled to mention him because Charlie Hunnam is a good actor I like quite a bit But Del Toro knows the score. He knows why this movie needed to happen. It needed to happen so Hunnam could sit around helpless and thoroughly stabbed while Jessica Chastain, armed with an oversized meat cleaver, could chase Mia Wasikowska, armed with a butcher knife, around the snow, everyone and everything stained with red. Some of it, I imagine, must be blood by now.