“A few clichés make us laugh, but a hundred clichés move us because we sense, dimly, that the clichés are talking amongst themselves, celebrating a reunion,” Umberto Eco once wrote, regarding the cult movie status of 1942’s Casablanca; and his appraisal is still an excellent guide for ascertaining the authenticity of movies which make claims to cult status today.
Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a “Victorian gothic horror”. Because, well, what else could it be from the doyen of that genre, whose back catalogue includes those two iconic projects, Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy? Piggybacking onto his more mainstream Pacific Rim, this 2015 off ering is about as cult as things can get. To begin with, it riffs off every genre cliché going: the opening sequence features dying parents and dusty old tomes, creaky floorboards and handsome strangers. Oh, and a ghost. From thereon in, the predictabilities keep churning out: an ethereally blonde Mia Wasikowska, as protagonist Edith, is Coventry Patmore’s archetypal ‘Angel in the House’, with just a hint of the bluestocking about her (this is designed for a postfeminist audience, after all), while her dark double is in an enigmatic, raven-haired Jessica Chastain. Meanwhile, the Byronic antihero is given an elegant makeover by a preternaturally compelling Tom Hiddleston – who, I’ve come to the conclusion, largely plays variations on Tom Hiddleston for every movie he features in. (N.B. this is no criticism of Hiddleston. The starriest stars of previous eras, from De Niro to Bogart himself, have mastered the same).
Crimson Peak’s magic lies in its understanding the fatal beauty of cliché. Lesser filmmakers would try, ham-handedly, to obscure genre signposts, unwittingly turning formula into failure. Del Toro deftly circumvents that problem by simply promising the familiar originality of his own kooky-creepy aesthetic, rather than trying to make his story (which basically melds themes from Jacobean melodrama with all the subheadings found in a Routledge Companion to Victorian Literature) pass for ‘new’.
It delivers. The results of Thomas E. Sanders’s production design are eccentrically gorgeous. The cast are eccentrically gorgeous, a winning trifecta of angular suspiciousness. Del Toro’s chosen combinations of SFX and CGI flesh out gruesome ghosts with tendrils of guts that look as though they’ve been crafted from manilla lace. The mood is sombre, but offers flickers of campy humour – largely delivered by the forever-scene stealing Chastain – to occasionally remind the old Hellboy crowd of his writerly talent for levity. And while there is nothing subtle about the symbolism of its white-versus-red palette, cinematographer Dan Loustsen forgivably presents Crimson Peak’s audience with a visual feast for the eyes. Perhaps most striking, however, are costume designer Kate Hawley’s contributions. As Jonathan Faiers recently posited in Dressing Dangerously, yellow is the new red for go-to wardrobe department colour psychology: its unsettling potential is wonderfully realised in one of Wasikowska’s vividly garish ballgowns.
Is the film easy viewing? Strangely, yes and no. Parts are certainly uncomfortable. But the taboos that, ten years ago, it might have been impressive to transgress, are now glided across with only a faint murmur of shock value – overshadowed, like much of today’s cinema, by what TV has already dared to explore.
In the wake of, say, American Horror Story, this movie is virtually archaic. Yet perhaps some things are meant to be. For Crimson Peak gains from what is, in the end, a quiet respect for the traumas of our pasts. Stripped to its barest bones, there is a satisfying dilemma at the film’s core which means it will probably endure as a cult staple of its genre when more sensational works have faded away.
Love may be gruesome – but it’s bloody beautiful.