Few genres have such vehement fans and such vitriolic detractors as horror. For the detractors, watching a horror movie is like watching a Katy Perry video. One causes them to avert their eyes in terror, creates severe discomfort and unease, and often induces headaches and nausea, whilst the other is a horror movie. But, for the horror buffs, a scare is as addictive as binging a new season of Game of Thrones. Horror buffs are constantly in search of that immediate, primal response to fear: adrenaline pumping beneath the skin; ethereal tingles along the spine; an acute awareness of one’s own mortality – much the same response to watching an episode of Mrs. Brown’s Boys. Horror buffs love the creepy ghoul, the scarlet blood, the frightened teen, and the dodgy real-estate properties. They continually marvel at the craftsmanship of a Carpenter and always have a craving for a Craven. They also tend to dress in black, have strong opinions on the devil, and enjoy exorcisms… Or is that priests?
From the perspective of the filmmaker, however, (or any analytical artist for that matter) horror, as a genre, can be very useful. It offers writers and filmmakers an opportunity to comment on politics, society and culture in a heightened, sensationalist fashion – a sort of cracked, kaleidoscopic lens with which to view the world. The same lens is used by Daily Mail journalists as well, incidentally. Simplistic horror tropes such as “the monster” offer effective means of creating subtext in a way in which is highly entertaining. The monster as a metaphor has been integral to horror since the start.
The best types of horror films rely on atmosphere and mood. They know that character and emotion are far superior to loud noises, surprise jolts and camera movements that look like the operator is having a fit. Guillermo del Toro knows this. His new film, Crimson Peak, however, isn’t strictly a horror film in the modern sense of the word – it’s more interested in passion and sensation than inducing a fright (the opposite of a night in bed with Donald Trump, one would imagine). Early in the film, Mia Wasikowska’s character, Edith Cushing – an aspiring novelist – submits a manuscript to her publisher. However, he swiftly criticises her tale as being nothing but a mere “ghost story.” Disputing this, she tells her publisher, “it’s not a ghost story; it’s a story with ghosts in it.” Well, the same can be said of Crimson Peak.
The film is a gorgeously opulent, violent, unbridled Gothic Romance akin to something penned by the Brontë Sisters or Daphne du Maurier – on crack. (Or, even better, Daphne du Gorier on crack.) The flamboyant style with which it’s told is more in line with the theatrical style of classic Hollywood, or the highly expressive, idiosyncratic style and design of silent cinema. It’s an incredibly histrionic take on horror, one that prises extravagance and grandeur over subtlety and restraint. And it is for this reason why it sadly won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Edith Cushing is the daughter of wealthy New York industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), from whom the dapper baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) seeks investment for his machine that promises to revolutionise the mining industry. Carter is uninterested, but young Edith falls for Thomas’s dashing demeanour and soon travels with him to his native Cumbria to the dilapidated manor of Allerdale Hall – the sort of creepy location you’d expect to find in an Edgar Allan Poe story. The house, we are told, is full of “shadows, creaks and groans” and the vibrant colour palate causes the building to resemble a “living painting” (as does the film itself, in fact).
Allerdale is where the movie really takes off. But the preliminary scenes in America serve as an important contrast to the macabre domain of Allerdale. New York is shown to be soaked in orange and auburn; a place of intellectual pursuit, familial pleasures and warm, flickering candles. But Thomas’s sister, Lucille (a brilliantly malevolent Jessica Chastain), stands out amidst the gilded backdrops like a black splodge on a Botticelli. Visually, she is completely at odds with the mellow landscapes of the US and floats across the screen with a sinister, foreboding air. With her dark hair, fiery frocks and spectral presence, she is more incongruous than Miley Cyrus at an awards show. But at Allerdale, Lucille truly matches her surroundings. It’s a gorgeous, black ruin decorated with oil paintings and lit by candelabras, and where red clay oozes up through the rotting floorboards and slides down the basement walls. The house is slowly dying; its thick blood seeping out.
Inside the main entrance of the estate is a vast, towering hallway with a deteriorating roof, allowing the outside elements to enter and carpet the floor. But, because this is a del Toro movie, asking questions like, “How can there possibly be that many leaves falling from the sky?” is the wrong approach. Del Toro’s films rarely aspire for realism. This, in turn, granted the production designer, Thomas E. Sanders, freedom to make Allerdale as elaborate a design as possible – and, oh boy, did he succeed.
Crimson Peak is one of the most lavish productions of the year – almost as lavish as a Bake-Off showstopper. Practically every frame of this film is a delight to the eye. It expertly appeals to all the senses as del Toro utilises almost every cinematic technique he can muster. He manages to blend the classical techniques of the silent era with the contemporary techniques of today, generating a truly sensual cinematic experience. The nods to silent cinema can be found all over the film: from the closing iris motif used to transition between scenes to the Nosferatu-like shadows strewn across the walls. The sound design is also particularly exquisite. It’s overdone, but deliberately so. Every squelch and squish is so over-the-top, so gloriously hyperbolic, that it makes the horribleness depicted all the more palpable. Lucille twisting a metal spoon inside a shrieking ceramic bowl is such a clever piece of direction – it not only adds texture to the scene but also fear in Edith’s eyes.
Crimson Peak also appears to be heavily influenced by Hitchcock. Firstly, there’s the obvious comparison with his adaptation of du Maurier’s Rebecca: Edith being the spritely ingénue, unsure of her new husband; Lucille being the darkly dressed, vampiric Mrs Danvers; and clear parallels can be drawn between Sir Thomas Sharpe and Maxim DeWinter – both men that may or may not be hiding a secret pertaining to their pervious wife. But, aside from Rebecca, del Toro also draws from other Hitchcock sources. To my mind, one of the most striking is the film’s similarities with Hitchcock’s Notorious.
In Notorious, Alicia Huberman (played by Ingrid Bergman) goes undercover and marries Alexander Sebastian (a deliciously unctuous Claude Rains) to help bring a group of Nazis to justice after World War II. After they marry, the couple retire to Alexander’s family home where Alicia must endure the eerie presence of Alexander’s icy mother, Madame Sebastian (Leopoldine Konstantin) – the ultimate frightful Fraulein. There’s a moment in Crimson Peak that clearly brings to mind a pivotal scene in Hitchcock’s classic, whereby the camera follows a teacup filled with poison as it’s carried across the room – a simple dramatic setup, but a most affective one. There’s also a lot of attention paid to keys dangling on a chain. One key, in particular, is kept under close watch. Like Alicia in Notorious, Edith feels that if she could only get hold of this key and find the right lock, she may uncover the secrets of her new family, and even that of her own fate.
Del Toro’s attention to detail in Crimson Peak is phenomenal. The minutiae of every single frame are so carefully considered and the movement of the actors within those frames so carefully orchestrated. His command of the image is remarkable, even if it’s not particularly original. And his use of mundane objects to conjure suspense and toy with the audience is incredibly effective. Whether it’s a keychain, a door handle, or a ball rolling across the floor (similar to the one Danny encounters in The Shining), this playful sleight of hand is far more visually arresting, narratively, than any monster on-screen. But again, Del Toro isn’t really interested in scaring you. He’s more concerned with creating lasting images of heavy significance.
The Sharpe siblings have a depraved family heritage and their malice is echoed through del Toro’s lurid imagery of insects and vermin throughout the film. In one, almost Lynchian scene, Lucille strokes Edith’s cheek with the wing of a dying butterfly. It’s light, graceful movements, along with the colour of its wings, are analogous to Edith’s character and angelic dress sense. But Lucille sets it down on the grass and ants begin to crawl over its trembling body. The film forces us to watch as they pierce and devour the poor, helpless creature.
Symbolic foreshadowing, such as this, is typical of del Toro. His films – especially his Spanish language ones – are deeply layered and heavily ingrained with rich symbolism and vivid imagery. And Crimson Peak is no exception. Candles, moths, clay, books – they all take on extra significance and help layer this fiery fairy tale with more substance and added meaning. But one of the movie’s strongest aspects is its value of Romanticism. The film, despite the masochistic, bloody delivery, is a love story more than anything else; but one that’s more Romantic than romantic. It values imagination and emotion over rationality, and blends horror and romance in the style of a Victorian Gothic novel. But perhaps the greatest delight is taking pleasure in del Toro’s astounding vision – a vision that is so supremely confident, and so clearly evident, in every single frame.