directed by Guillermo del Toro
starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain
Gothic Horror. Perhaps my favorite cinematic comfort food which strangely didn’t begin with a movie. My introduction to the gothic was the archaic GE Show’n Tell Picturesound of Jane Eyre. For the uninitiated Show’n Tell Picturesound was basically a TV set with a turntable on top, except the “TV” illuminated film strips. It was an over-complicated book and record except the book illustrations were on the screen. My family owned a pre-school so one of these devices was in heavy use with lots of titles to choose from and the only one I clearly remember watching repeatedly was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The mad woman in the attic chilled me to the core and was ceaseless fodder for my over active imagination. Later I would indulged on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and of course the Bronte sisters as of course draw from the well of Universal and Hammer movies, but it all started with a film strip of young Jane discovering Rochester’s wife on the third floor of Thornfield Hall.
2015 brought the world Crimson Peak, a new gothic romance/horror film from the modern king of dark fairy tales, Guillermo del Toro. Crimson Peak is an original work with a screenplay by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, but owes a huge debts to Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Daphne du Mariner, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, Roger Corman, and Mari Bava. del Toro is a master of telling very familiar stories without major inventions of expectations yet has such a masterful visual style and confidence in the material that his films never feel predicable or derivative. The film suffered some criticism of being style over substance, but of course that could be said of the gothic in general as the whole point is the rich atmosphere that is the real heartbeat and driving force of the narrative. The decaying mansions full of repressed secrets aren’t merely tropes of gothics, but are really the main characters. Crimson Peak‘s Allerdale Hall joins Jane Eyre‘s Thornfield Hall, Rebecca’s Manderlay, and Wuthering Heights as one of the great characters in gothic horror.
Guillermo del Toro opens his story in the decidedly un-gothic and un-romantic city of Buffalo, New York at the turn of the 20th century. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is visited by the spirit of her dead mother who warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak”. Shortly thereafter Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) arrive in Buffalo looking for venture capital from Edith’s father. The business deal falls through but Edith is smitten with the handsome aristocrat. Her father tries to intervene in their budding romance, but when he is murdered, they are free to marry. They soon arrive in the north of England at Sir Thomas’ ancestral home, Allendale Hall. The beleaguered mansion still shows some signs of its former splendor despite sinking into the red clay pit it was built on and missing sections of the roof that allow the snow to fall throughout much of the great hall. The house and the family that calls it home are shadows of their former selves and are dying under the weight of the secrets they bear.
The ending manages to defy audience expectations without being overly twisty or resorting to a hysterical woman ending. The “it’s all in her head, poor dear” explanations of supernatural happenings as a trope are trite and demeaning both to the characters and audience. With few exceptions those endings are a cheap cheat and the events of the films rarely line up with the exposition given at the denouement. Crimson Peak manages to fall into s similar place with Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) where the ghosts were real and the heroine was extra sensitive to the surroundings. A major difference is in Crimson Peak Edith is a far stronger and stable heroine than Julie Harris’ Eleanor was in The Haunting. Edith, and the audience, have moments of doubt as to her sanity and the motivations of Thomas and Lucielle.
Arrow Video’s new deluxe treatment of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is another disc that more than justifies a double dip or upgrading from streaming. Firstly the film is given a gorgeous presentation, which should go without saying for a film that’s only 2 years old, but there are recent films that frankly haven’t looked so hot coming to home video. Secondly the extras alone are worth price with a seemingly endless parade of interviews and featurettes examining the making of and critical relations to the film. Horror icon Kim Newman and Diabolique editor, and cult Blu ray stalwart, Kat Ellinger contribute pieces to the disc and Guillermo del Toro introduces his film and delivers a terrific director’s commentary for the film that allow him to merge creator, fan, and expert commentaries into one track that expands the appreciation of Crimson Peak.