Sunday, October 18, 2015


So, it's a ghost story.

It's more a story with ghosts.

Edith explains this more than once in the opening scenes of Crimson Peak. She's writing a novel. Already she's been told to put a romance in it and then she has decided to conceal her gender from publishers by drafting the book on a typewriter. And behind her, writer director Guillermo del Toro is telling us that we should cast off ideas that we're in for a horror movie. It's not a clumsy breach of the fourth wall as much as a kind of wink to anyone who has followed his career. So far he's made popcorn genre films in English and highly original dark fables in Spanish. Well, this is a dark fable in English.

There are indeed ghosts. They are fleshy but also ashen. Trails and dribbles of ectoplasm flow around them like the spectres in The Devil's Backbone. They are scary when you see them but they are also messengers. What's on show here is not horror but melodrama and it is played as a kind of spoken opera. The grand orchestral score for once in a contemporary film really has a welcome place. Edith's insistence on the relationship of ghosts to the story plays, in effect, like a theme in an overture.

The plot is a compound of gothic melodramas like Jane Eyre or Rebecca. Young and beautiful and Edith (a golden Mia Wasikovska) falls for the suavely dark Sir Thomas Thorne (the utterly dependable Tom Hiddleston) as he tours the Americas seeking investors for his clay mining machine. His sister, the arch and sinister Lady Lucille (a posh accented Jessica Chastain) slinks through the society crowd like a crimson serpent and descends a gothic stairwell like seven Mrs Danvers all at once. We're not talking new, here, as much as well expressed.

As a child, Edith was warned by the ghost of her mother to beware of Crimson Peak. And it is to a crimson peak (a natural phenomenon explained in the second act) that she is drawn. The mansion is slowly sinking into the blood red clay. The ceilings in some rooms have caved in; snow falls gently through the holes. Corridors give way to more corridors. The basement, accessed by an ancient lift, is filled with vats of bloodlike clay that could hide many bodies. And the cupboards and the recesses, the bathtubs and the entrances crawl and slide with the blood red dead.

Edith runs through this increasingly grave life decision like a gothic heroine. Well, she would if she weren't written as she has been. While she is under constant threat, at first from the ghosts and then from her sister in law and even her new husband she is more of an action heroine. And it is this that lifts Crimson Peak from being a beautiful but pointless melodrama to a Guillermo del Toro film.

Mia Wasikovska's bright performance goes from naivete to hard, canny survivalism as the full picture of where the real threats are coming from. Without this element, character and performance, the film would be pedestrian, if spectacularly so, on the same shelf as almost everything by Tim Burton after Ed Wood. Until this role solidifies it can be difficult to see where del Toro is going with the material but as blasting mini opera about life's mistakes it takes an honourable place beside the Spanish speaking masterworks. Perhaps a little softer than Pan's Labyrinth, which might well disappoint, but this could be the mellowing maturity brings and that might well spell more depth. We shall wait. We shall see.

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