Look at so called “Film Twitter” or any of the great sites for film writing and you’ll see the same story being written to death over the past two or three years: we’re just not getting exciting movies, nothing like what made us all passionate about the medium twenty years ago, and there are no mid-size entertainments anymore. But in the past year or so, I’ve begun to disagree. Trainwreck is the kind of satisfying and confident romantic comedy that has been dead for a decade thanks to our collective cynicism and Jennifer Lopez. Love and Mercy has the modest ambition and simplistic creative spark of something a studio would have produced back then. Beyond the Lights would have been on solid VHS rotation in my house. This, in the roundaboutest of ways, brings me to Crimson Peak.
The minor miracle of this movie is that it comes from a major studio when the genre fare we’re being given is micro-budgeted and promoted cheaply. Make no mistake, you see every damn penny they spent on Peak (and there were obviously quite a few) right up there on screen. True to director Guillermo Del Toro’s distinctive aesthetic, every design element on display is opulent and lurid, as gorgeous as it is unsettling. The film’s not only bold for its content, but by its existence in an unfriendly market.
That’s not to downplay the achievement here, though. The film can safely be recommended to be experienced in IMAX for production design alone. The reveal of the interior of the Sharpe home is jaw-droppingly grandiose and resulted in a few quiet gasps at my screening.
But Crimson Peak has more up it’s sleeve than just feeding your eyeballs. This is a true capital-G Gothic, more interested in getting under your skin than you jumping out of it. Indeed, the first hour or so is all character set-up and tease, with those design elements educating us about Del Toro’s world and its inhabitants as much as the script. Even the actors take the material, with Jessica Chastain the standout as the operatic Lucille Sharpe. Her performance has this symbiotic and inseparable relationship with the production elements, and its clearly informed by the environment, from costumes to hair to sets.
When the horror begins to take focus and revelations occur, we’re still in a vein more macabre than outright terrifying.
I’ve been intentionally light on story elements here for a few reasons. The plot itself is pretty light and simple, but the marketing materials have given away little, so I want to do so too. Yes, there are ghosts and blood and it’s all deliciously moody. But there’s a major plot thread that slowly reveals itself that I don’t want to ruin. Suffice it to say, it’s another major reason why it’s shocking to see a major studio give the film an okay, regardless of Del Toro’s reputation.
Not normally one for nostalgia, my instant reaction when the credits rolled was that Peak is the type of film I would have begged my parents to let me watch 20 years ago, or, alright, outright deceived (“No, it’s not that violent or scary…”). Add this one to another on the pile where at the mid-point my parents realized they were in far over their heads, due to that particular plot point. I can’t remember the last time I saw a studio movie this batshit.
Twists aside, we’re kind of left hanging as to the ultimate purpose of all the evil-doing. It might even be passable to say it’s all reduced to psychosis and insanity, but we’re not really told that. And what was the point of the blood saunas? Do the ghosts have really anything to do with the Sharpe’s business purposes, or…. no….?
But again, this is something we just don’t see anymore: a story-focused, masterfully-executed gothic horror. Heck, when was the last time you saw a solid (non-found footage) ghost story?