Good Thing the Clay Was So Red: Interior Decorating with Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak (2015)
Dir: Guillermo Del Toro
TC4P Rating: 7/9

I am not sure that I ever truly believed in ghosts.

Scared of the dark? Early in my life, sure... I wasn't exactly afraid of total darkness, but dark places, yes. Mainly darkened rooms adjacent to hallways down which I was passing that either had an unearthly stillness to them or else had something deep within the bowels of that dark room which was making a noise my brain couldn't explain. 

Or sometimes, my brain invented the cause of that noise. In the house in which we grew up in Eagle River, there was a small furnace room without a door under the stairs at the end of a short expanse of hallway around the corner from our bedrooms, and in that unlit cove was a furnace that insisted in making this long, slow, but repetitive whistling noise. And sometimes, as you were passing the furnace room, that noise would stop cold for a short period, and my little kid brain couldn't cope with staring into an absolute darkness that was now working in concert with my other mortal enemy -- absolute quiet. In my mind, the whistling noise was transformed into the (certainly cartoon-inspired) snore of a sleeping vampire, and when the noise disappeared as we passed, it was a sure sign that the bloodsucking creep in the darkness was waking up to seek out his next victim. As these things tend to do, the scenario evolved into my brothers and I tiptoeing carefully down that stretch of hallway trying to not wake up the vampire, and if the noise stopped before we made it to the stairs, booking it like hell up those stairs, screaming our heads off and hoping the vampire wouldn't catch us from behind. We never once worried that we slept just down the hall from that same vampire in bedrooms without any doors on them (the downstairs, really just a basement, was ever unfinished while we lived there, unlike the upstairs which was constructed much later but completed first). My brothers and I only knew that if we were going to make it alive upstairs for dinner, we often had to weapon up to protect ourselves from the thirsty undead.

But, ghosts? I guess we all think we have seen one at some point. Or that we have heard one. Or that if there is a house that has accrued a lonely, desolate look sitting undisturbed and seemingly uninhabited in a neighborhood, then by all means, it must be haunted. It is the place that kids dare themselves around, the place that gets egged the most on Halloween, and the place where legends tend to grow about those that once owned it or those that dare dwell in it. And while I have found it great fun to join my friends, many of whom are certainly believers in the supernatural, in playing such games with "haunted" houses, rooms, and university theatrical facilities, I have always preferred the more scientific route that one must first seek out natural explanations for phenomena before engaging in or relying on the cryptic for answers. Do I believe in ghosts? At my core, I would have to say that I am ever the skeptic.

Director Guillermo del Toro must certainly believe in ghosts. If he doesn't, he at least believes in their importance in telling his stories. While most of his films tend to be populated mainly by the physically monstrous, he wrote and directed an outright ghost movie back in 2001 called The Devil's Backbone [El espinazo del diablo], which still stands as my second favorite film he has done (right after the Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth). He also executive produced 2007's The Orphanage [El orphanato] by Spanish director J.A. Bayona, which is one of the better ghost movies I have seen, especially among recent entries. And while ghosts may not be at the heart (or plot) of most of his other films, del Toro is justly famous for the haunted feeling that inhabits much of his work overall, whether they feature intelligent bugs, malevolent fairy creatures, or demonic superheroes. So, it's not surprising he is now attached to Disney's upcoming Haunted Mansion feature (and has seemingly used his influence to get the Hatbox Ghost added back into the original attraction at Disneyland).

I await each new del Toro film like the rest of the world waits for Christmas. It is a bad habit to get into, because what do you do when you are even slightly disappointed with the results? I had been getting more and more excited with every replay of Crimson Peak's trailer over the past few months, and as the calendar advanced, I had taken to checking online several times a week to make sure the film's October 16th release date was a real thing. Even though I had learned my lesson so many times before with film after film after film throughout my life, I was still practically breathless with anticipation over Crimson Peak.

Did I like Crimson Peak? Do I like the color red? Because you do have to like the color red if you have half a chance at enjoying the film. Crimson Peak is besotted with the shade living within its title. It crawls down the walls of the mansion that takes up the story's second half. It drips from the pipes, it smears the floor, and it fills up vats in the basement. The clay that comprises the English terrain upon which the manse rests is a brilliant crimson that practically glows through the snow that covers the estate. And when the red red kroovy begins to flow from the violence lurking within Crimson Peak, the world will turn scarlet before your eyes. I can think of few major films (and I won't list outright gore films here) where the color has played such an important part in the story; Schindler's List and Don't Look Now are the two which sprang to mind as I watched the film. (And Kieslowski's Three Colors trilogy, of course, though Red was my least favorite of the trio.)

But we will return to the discussion of hues in a second. There is the matter of ghosts and whether I might buy what del Toro is selling (outside of purchasing a ticket that is). Edith Cushing, the fervently Gothic film's damsel in distress (played winningly by Mia Wasikowska), tells us at the very beginning of the film, "Ghosts are real." She says those three small words matter of factly, and adds, "That much I know. I've seen them all my life." 

It is the dilemma of the skeptic who is also a willing participant in fantasy and horror films. How much are you able to tamp down your personal code or beliefs in order to maintain enjoyment in a story? If you are still watching Crimson Peak after the moment that Edith proclaims, "Ghosts are real," and you are not willing to say, "Absolutely, Edith baby. Thrill me!" then you are not going to get very far. Look, I don't believe in vampires at all (except the bats), but I do love Dracula and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I take everything that has to do with the supernatural with a Lot's wife-sized grain of salt, but I still can't miss Sleepy Hollow a single week. And speaking of Lot's wife, I don't believe in practically anything that occurs in the pages of The Holy Bible, but that doesn't mean I was going to skip watching Chuck Heston parting the Red Sea. If you want to have some fun with your movies, sometimes you have to loosen up a bit and just let the filmmakers tell their stories. 

And so I let Edith have her ghosts, though she still needed to prove to me just how real they were within the context of the story she was telling. You can show me anything, but it is in the style in which you tell the tale that will determine whether I come to believe in your fantasies. Crimson Peak revels in its Gothic trappings and turn of the twentieth century architecture. Del Toro's budget is well spent in making us believe that people and carriages alike are sloshing through the mud on the streets of old Buffalo, New York, and even more so in the geographical remoteness of the characters later in the film. We are thrown into Edith's world of Jane Austen-like wit and cotillions (though removed from Austen's time by about a century), and then we are given Edith's natural melodramatic counterparts, a pair of con people suffused with ill intent towards the girl that bear the striking faces of Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. Such a trio of actors would have to be dream casting for anyone even approaching a Gothic romance, and del Toro is well-served by each one here, especially given that this film is pretty much contained to its three main characters (with some small assistance by a pair of others). 

Because we have been told at the outset that ghosts are real, del Toro wastes no time in producing one for us in which he fervently hopes we do believe. Otherwise, this whole affair tumbles like a epically produced house of cards. This spirit, and others in the film, bear warnings to young Edith about a mysterious place or thing called Crimson Peak, and that she needs to beware it. That this ghost -- the spirit of her deceased mother -- comes to her in violent fashion that seems to threaten far worse than a mere omen regarding future events shows that ghosts really are in need of a public relations director, who might be able to provide some coaching in how to deal first hand with people not trapped within the realm of spirits. 

It would be hard to describe much more of Crimson Peak without revealing major plot points, and I don't want to ruin someone's good time. Much of the fun that I encountered in the film was based on not really knowing where Del Toro was going with the story, and I was happy to bounce from well-stage scene to the next, and to just drift wherever the plot took me. That there is something far more horrific and strange going on behind the basic set-up if fairly obvious to determine, but it is the journey to that point that makes up the reason why we go to the movies in the first place. You want thrills? You are going to see an exceedingly graphic murder almost done in a giallo style (I was not expecting to have a flashback to old school Argento). You want tragic romance? With these actors, how could you have anything but that? You want tons of red clay? Well...

Here is where the film fails for me, and this is not to say that I didn't think the film was gorgeous-looking and precisely what I had hoped it would be. But Del Toro seems to have gotten trapped by a design aesthetic, and ran with it as far as he could go, and his movie sinks or swims depending on the viewer's acceptance of this motif. The movie is so red, it's last name should be Buttons. As I said before, Crimson Peak is soaking in the color. Late in the film, I swear that I was seeing the color peripherally around me in the theatre because it had so overtaken my senses. Del Toro wants you to really feel his title, and you have to admire the commitment of the man and his team in making this aspect come to life. But I had the sense it might have been at the expense of the believability of his story. And his ghosts.

I think back to The Devil's Backbone, where he really had me caught up in the tragedy that befell the ghostly character at the center of the plot in that film, and where Del Toro's technique was less concerned with the design of the character and more with the back story. The effectiveness of that film relied totally on accepting that character's fate and making me also accept he could guide the film's other characters to learn of that fate. In Crimson Peak, we are also dealing with a tragedy (or tragedies) in the past which the heroine must decipher through clues revealed to her by spirits, but Del Toro goes a bit too far in trying to sell the existence of those spirits. They are aggressive and angry, and a bit too detailed in their tangibility. They may even be scary to some, such is the excellence of his effects teams, but they didn't scare me. And I wanted to be scared by them. It may be just a personal preference, given what the ghosts are trying to achieve in the story, that they perhaps should have been more ethereal and less apparently in the same dimension; that they should have been more haunted than haunting. 

Guillermo del Toro believes in ghosts. And I believe in him. But no matter how marvelously he employs his special effects teams in Crimson Peak, I never quite come around to believing in the ghosts in his movie. But, man, can Del Toro's pals ever decorate a haunted house. 

Set designers are real. That much I know. I've seen their work all my life. Especially last week.


EggOfTheDead said…
That clay was a seriously weird color, like out of a '70s giallo weird color. I know del Toro does nothing without a reason and I'd love to know why he used that particular red.

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