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PEAK Season

October 26, 2015

Guillermo del Toro loves his monsters. His filmography is packed with them; Cronos, Mimic, Blade IIPan’s LabyrinthHellboy, and Pacific Rim all burst at the seams with beasts both fantastical and hellish. His latest, Crimson Peak is more of a ghost story, but don’t worry – ghosts are still well within his wheelhouse. After all, Crimson Peak borrows a few themes from one of del Toro’s best films, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), another ghost story of sorts.

Crimson Peak begins in Buffalo, NY, at the dawn of the 20th century. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring novelist haunted by the ghost of her mother. She’s also being courted by both a handsome doctor (Charlie Hunnam), and an English entrepreneur. After her father dies under mysterious circumstances, she marries Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and leaves for England with him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures

The Sharpes live in their centuries-old family mansion, a run down estate named Allerdale Hall, and nicknamed “Crimson Peak.” Despite Allerdale’s grandiosity, it is sinking into the earth it was built upon because of an abundance of soft red clay. Clay literally bleeds through the walls and seeps up through the floor boards. Worse yet, Edith continues to see ghosts, more now than ever before, and they’re adamant about her leaving Crimson Peak.

Despite the (not entirely) CGI ghosts, del Toro taps into classical filmmaking, paying homage to films such as Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Haunting (1963). Peak is a tale of gothic horror and romance, and like its progenitors, the ghosts are not the horror’s true source. Picking up a thread from his own The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), del Toro draws us into his terrifying period piece fantasy world only to reveal that the terror of the real world is far scarier than anything he can conjure with modern movie magic.

In addition to thematic harmony with del Toro’s past films, Crimson Peak has that signature “del Toro” look. In terms of framing, Guillermo del Toro has become something of a trailblazer as of late. Particularly with Peak and Pacific Rim (2013), del Toro loves emphasizing the height of his jaw-dropping set pieces. The Mexican filmmaker always directs films in (or around) the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (width-to-height ratio). Among the most common aspect ratios, 1.85:1 is the tallest (narrowest, squarest, etc). While using 1.85x as the frame-width hardly makes anyone an iconoclast, del Toro traffics in “genre” fare. “Genre” movies are almost always presented in a ratio of 2.35:1 or wider.

The history of aspect ratios is fascinating, but in short; throughout film history, the increasing popularity of television has prompted the film industry to use wider and wider aspect ratios to differentiate the two products. Wide aspect ratios became signifiers of the types of stories you couldn’t see on the small screen. One manifestation of this notion was that anything with an additional genre element (science fiction, fantasy, historical epics, etc.) generally warranted a wider frame, while more conventional comedies and dramas required no such special distinction.

If this seems antiquated (or if you just hate seeing those horizontal black bars on your TV when you watch movies), that’s because movie theaters no longer protect the “specialness” of wider aspect ratios. The whole concept of using wider ratios in movie theaters only worked because theaters employed a “constant height” system. Whether a film was 2.75:1 or 1.67:1, the “1” always meant “1.” The screen would grow wider, and thus cover a greater area of wall space, to accommodate wider frames.

This is no longer what happens. Nowadays, most movie theaters have screens that run the width of the auditorium and then crop the height of the screen to fit the aspect ratio of the film. So now, wider films, films that once spanned far grander than their narrower counterparts, appear smaller because the projection area is crunched down. Without going full soap-box, this goes against everything cinema has been about since the dawn of the art form. This neatly brings the conversation back to Crimson Peak.

Thankfully, we have artists like Guillermo del Toro, who uses theater (not to mention television) screens to his full advantage. In today’s “constant width” landscape, using a narrower aspect ratio (i.e. 1.85:1) actually makes for a taller, grander-feeling picture. When a film employs the gargantuan sets and grand production design of a typical del Toro joint, a deliberate emphasis on height can be truly stunning. Talk about making lemonade from lemons.

Sure enough, del Toro’s latest film looks fantastic from top to bottom. The costuming, and the mansion at Crimson Peak are resplendent, and ably photographed. And as for those (not entirely) CGI ghouls, they also impress. Edith’s mother appeared as a cloaked dementor-esque figure, while most of the others were of the blood-red and sinewy variety. They were certainly creepy, but the film naturally benefited from their not having to carry the sole burden of frightening the audience.

Speaking of, Crimson Peak seemed like an odd candidate for an “R” rating considering the quasi-populism of del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) films and Pacific Rim. Despite its old-fashioned stylings, Crimson Peak earns it’s mature rating with some surprisingly grisly violence, and adult themes that cut a bit harder than you might expect.

The cast give wonderful performances. Mia Wasikowska has appeared in a number of fantasy films and period pieces, notably Alice in Wonderland in 2010. Doll-like yet cunning, she is right at home. Chastain is the other standout. She’s dark, fierce, and it’s easy to forget that she was putting on an British accent. Hiddleston and Hunnam play Edith’s chivalrous suitors, and while Hiddleston has the meatiest role, the entire cast embraces the fantasy elements of the story.

Crimson Peak is well worth the price of admission, even if it doesn’t pack quite the heft of its director’s best efforts. Its worthiness increases further if you happen to be looking for something spooky, old-school and lavish to enjoy on a crisp October night. If you’re familiar with the work of Guillermo del Toro, I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed. If you’re not familiar with del Toro, then I can’t imagine you’ve seen anything quite like Crimson Peak.

From → Film Reviews

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