I’ve never been much for antiques. By and large, that’s a reflection of budgetary issues – the furniture I own is nearly all cheap-as-chips or hand-me-downs – but I’ve just never really been invested in the aestheticisation of aging and decay that seems to drive aficionados of antiques. Guillermo del Toro, though, seems like a man well-versed in the interior of an antique store. That’s evident from his art: the antique-dealer-turned-vampire at the centre of Cronos, the antique store run by David Bradley in The Strain. Even his house is practically an antique store itself, cluttered with horror iconography and relics of his decades of filmmaking.
While I’m not personally fascinated by antiques, I can understand their appeal. The craftsmanship inherent in a piece of furniture that’s lasted centuries is inextricably bound up with an aura of death. Someone long dead has owned it before you and, more than likely, someone will own it long after your own death. An antique’s beauty is tied up in its constancy; a contrast to our mortality. (Personally, I prefer a comfy couch over an elaborate reminder that I’m going to die one day, but to each their own.)
Crimson Peak, del Toro’s latest film, strives to capture that atmosphere of ornate decrepitude. It draws heavily on cinematic history; the elaborate, decaying Victorian mansion at the film’s centre is built from pieces of The Shining, The Haunting, The Innocents and Rebecca, amongst others. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Bernat Vilaplana’s editing are similarly old-fashioned, drawing on the lurid colour palette of giallo – vibrant reds, fluorescent greens, virulent yellows – while cutting between scenes with bold iris-ins and unearthly wipes.
But del Toro draws from more than the recent history of the cinematic medium. The spine of Crimson Peak is gothic literature; its heroine, Edith Cushing, is a budding author who compares herself to Mary Shelley. As the daughter of a successful New York businessman (Jim Beaver), she embodies the virginal archetype completely, burdened by her mother’s ghost – figuratively and literally – and unable to comprehend the complexities of love. When a visiting English nobleman, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), sweeps her off her feet – and from America to his family home in England – he personifies the marriage of carnality and mortality that is at the black heart of gothic fiction. In a society where ‘til death do us part’ was meant literally, committed romantic love is conflated with the inevitability of one’s own death.
That’s achingly apparent when Edith arrives at the Sharpe estate, inhabited only by Thomas, his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and a couple of servants. The house – an enormous, crumbling monstrosity – is as much a character as its inhabitants. It breathes when the East Wind hits, its walls rattling as its fireplaces flare uncontrollably. Its foundation is viscous red clay that oozes from its floorboards and stains the snow red – hence the nickname ‘Crimson Peak’. It’s decaying, too, a gaping hole in its roof signalling the extent of its disrepair, as spectral snowflakes drift through its jagged portal.
Hopefully my clumsy prose goes some way towards capturing how wonderful this looks, how precisely del Toro’s visuals capture this potent amalgamation of grief and sex and death. Judged purely on its visuals, Crimson Peak is a success. But just as there’s more to an antique than meticulous handiwork, movies require more than resonant visuals to succeed. And, unfortunately, Crimson Peak fails to conjure the aforementioned ‘aura of death’ that distinguishes an antique from, well, old furniture.
One can forgive the clumsy conventionality of the narrative. This is an old story; its specifics might change, but it’s been told many times before and it will continue to be told for years to come. So it makes sense that del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins have done away with concealment; the particulars of its mystery are apparent to the audience long before they’re revealed to Edith herself. Assigning Chastain an ominous speech to Wasikowska about black moths eating butterflies might disperse any fog of mystery, but it’s not like any halfway-intelligent audience member is going to be surprised by her predatory villainy in any case.
The screenplay is littered with such blunt symbolism, along with a hefty dose of self-reflexivity. Edith defends the lack of a love story in her manuscript, while asserting that her ghosts are “metaphors for the past.” Her doctor (a curiously miscast Charlie Hunnam) muses about a colourblind patient who can’t see green and red in a film saturated with those two colours. The line-readings waver between self-consciously mannered and flagrantly theatrical. Yet – for me at least – all this artisanal artifice proves counterproductive; while I’m all for films acknowledging and interrogating their inauthenticity, here it has the net effect of destroying the gothic atmosphere that should envelop the film’s antique aesthetic.
In a fiery rant late in the film, Chastain rages, “The things we do for love like this are ugly, mad, full of sweat and regret. This love turns you, maims you, twists you inside out. It is a monstrous love, and it makes monsters of us all.” That speech, in all its delicious melodrama, is what Crimson Peak hungers for. Where is the ugliness, the madness, the monstrosity? Where is the heat of passion, of two flames burning so brightly for one another that they just might consume the world in a ghastly conflagaration? Where is that pang of death and beauty and pain, the heartbreak of loss and the melancholy of mortality? For all its meticulous craftsmanship, Crimson Peak feels empty. It resembles an antique, but without the weight of history; it’s just a well-made replica.