Crimson Peak and the expectation set by Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth is an astonishing film. The incredible mix of imaginative visuals, fantasy horrors, real life horrors, stunning performances and beautiful but heartbreaking storytelling is quite brilliant. It is simply one of the finest movies ever made and it undoubtedly director Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece. It is unreasonable to expect del Toro to create another film quite like it but I have only now come to accept that. 

Hellboy II: The Golden Army was his follow up movie and I went in to that stupidly eager to see what this visionary director would do next. Yes, this was the guy who had given us the first Hellboy and Blade 2 (which were both good for what they were) but surely something had changed, del Toro was clearly a different kind of artist now and anything he did would be more than just another comic book film. To be fair, the Hellboy sequel was more than just another comic book film. The design of the characters, the costumes and the sets were brilliant but it still centred around what was an essentially B-movie conceit; monsters assigned by the government to fight supernatural threats. It wasn’t a work of art and it was never going to be.

Nonetheless when Guillermo del Toro’s next film came out I was excited again. Sure, I knew Pacific Rim was a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots but this was the man who had given us that amazing tale a young girl escaping the ravages of post civil war Spain by descending into a fantastical underground world of fauns and fairies. Surely this kaijū pic would be something special. 

It really wasn’t!

Undaunted by these disappointments I sat down to watch Crimson Peak with similarly high hopes. No demonic superheroes or gigantic mechanoids in this one. It was a good old fashioned gothic haunted house film and I was convinced it was going to blow me away. 

It didn’t. 

The thing is though that this no fault of the film and no fault of the director. Crimson Peak is an immensely atmospheric, immersive and exquisitely designed piece of film making. It just isn’t as good as Pan’s Labyrinth but that’s okay. Very little is as good as Pan’s Labyrinth and I can now see that I should thank del Toro for creating it and stop thinking he is going to match it every time he picks up a camera.

Judging Crimson Peak entirely on its own merits then, it is very good. Mia Wasikowska plays a young American woman trying to find success as a novelist at the turn of the 20th Century. She is exceptional in two ways; she is uncharacteristically headstrong for a lady of the age and she sees dead people. Neither of these things prevent her falling for and marrying Tom Hiddleston’s dashing English baronet and soon she is moving in with him and his sister in their decaying Cumbrian mansion. Bad things have happened in this house though and it is not a comfortable place to be for a girl sensitive to spectral visitations.

Both the building and its ghosts look superb. These spooks, like the ones in American Werewolf in London, clearly decompose over time but what remains is the evidence of their demise, be that a smashed skull or a cleaver to the brain. Other films choose not to let the frame properly display their phantoms, either for effect or to disguise the special effects, but this does not happen here. You get to see these apparitions in their full gruesome, skeletal glory. This possibly makes them a little less scary as imagination is literally what creates nightmares but they are never easy to look at and del Toro clearly makes you do just that.

The house itself is in a similar state of rot. Intricate stairs curl around a column of light that descends from a splintered gash torn in the roof. Red clay from the mines below bleeds through the floor and scabbed doors line ornate corridors, each limply guarding its own secret. The building genuinely feels like one of the characters and it is an example of stunning set design working symbiotically with story.

In many respects the narrative itself is quite simple. It still feels a little truncated though, as if there is a bigger yarn here than the film cannot quite contain. It feels like an adaptation of a Victorian novel that never was with the events that contrive to get the protagonist to England seeming particularly rushed. Once the story arrives at home though it settles in and while it feels familiar (Rebecca and The Woman in Black are both brought to mind) it satisfies. The plots big revelations are not surprising but it isn’t predictable.

In terms of the performances Wasikowska and Hiddlestone are both very good but the film probably belongs to Jessica Chastain. It is odd to think that only five years ago Chastain was doing Poirot, so prolific has she become, but we’ve never seen her quite like this. As the sinister sister she plays the melodrama perfectly and even though she goes full on bonkers by the end it never feels over played.

So if you are looking for Crimson Peak to equal the majesty of Pan’s Labyrinth you’ll be disappointed but if you just want an entertaining, if grizzly, gothic story with ghosts then you couldn’t do a lot better. 

The Ripley Factor:
Measured against the criteria set for assessing the Ripley Factor, Crimson Peak does really well. It is a female lead piece so the inclusion of the women is not tokenistic. They certainly are not there just to define or motivate men, they are believable as real people in the context of the film and they are not objectified. Chastain’s Lucille does not present the most positive vision of femininity but Wasikowska’s Edith is brave and proactive in the way you want a Victorian lady to be. The character is not a million miles away from Alice as she played her for Tim Burton only this time she’s not surrounded by cats and rabbits and playing cards as much as putrefied corpses and crazy aristocratic Brits.

Is this one for the kids?
No. I’ve talked about high end 12As before but this is a high end 15. It isn’t just the ghoulies, although they are bad enough, there is some pretty graphic violence too. Oh, and you get to see a man’s naked bum. 

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