Crimson Peak Blu-ray Review (Universal BD, originally published 2015)
When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place ﬁlled with secrets that will haunt her forever. Between desire and darkness, between mystery and madness, lies the truth behind Crimson Peak. (From Universal’s official synopsis)
In the lead-up to the theatrical release of Crimson Peak, co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro repeatedly stated that his latest film was not a horror film. He insisted that audiences needed to understand that it was a Gothic Romance – ”Creepy, tense, but full of emotion...” Unfortunately, the message didn’t spread too far beyond his Twitter followers. The trailers and TV spots Universal rolled out kept on using the ‘H-word’ and some box office critics have blamed the misconception for the film’s mediocre earnings. But, let’s say that, even though you were expecting a more traditional horror movie, you still enjoyed Crimson Peak’s flamboyant and melodramatic sense of terror. You might be thinking to yourself, “I kind of like this Gothic Romance thing,” and are curious enough to explore some of del Toro’s possible cinematic inspirations. Well, I’m here for you. Instead of writing a traditional review of what makes Crimson Peak tick, where it succeeds and where it fails, I’m going to explore some of its possible motion picture lineage.
As an art and form of literature, Gothic traditions extend back to the Medieval era and have endured throughout the modern era to include Rural Gothic, Urban Gothic, and even Southern Gothic traditions. However, architecture aside, most of what we think of as ‘Gothic’ when it comes to movies is based in Georgian and Victorian Dark Romanticism – a genre that was steeped in the writings of Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bram Stoker, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe. Gothic imagery on film often (usually) mixes Victorian period-appropriate costuming and architecture with the extreme lighting techniques of German Expressionism. Horror is not a prerequisite and neither is tragedy, but a feminine point of view is key, which del Toro himself has acknowledged as a problem for the subgenre, as film versions tended to be adjusted to fit a male-centric perspective. Like most genre designations, specifics are difficult to define, but, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus here on moody films that revolve around feminine characters, isolated locations, and feature definitively Gothic production design/cinematography – i.e. I’m going to skip film adaptations of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, despite both being classic examples of Gothic Romance in literature. This isn’t to mention Crimson Peak’s substantial narrative debt to Jane Eyre.
The prototypically scary Gothic Romances began in the silent era with the prime example being Rupert Julian’s (Edward Sedgwick, Ernst Laemmle, and Lon Chaney were uncredited) exquisitely crafted Phantom of the Opera (1925). Though Gaston Leroux’s novel was adapted dozens of times in the decades after Julian’s version was released (some of them even gave heroine Christine Daaé more compelling role in the story), this silent version helped to set the stage (del Toro pays tribute to the silent era with iris-ins and wipes throughout the film). Most of the Universal Horror from the ‘30s and ‘40s didn’t really fit the model, as they tended to be built around male characters (for example, Tod Browning 1931 version of Dracula demoted Lucy Westenra’s role significantly). Even the campy, extreme Gothicness of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is essentially a movie about men and their relationships with other men. However, those films coincided with a number of Goth-noir thrillers that defined many of the visual and tonal fundamentals of Gothic Romance in motion pictures. These include Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944), George Cukor’s Gaslight (the basis of the term ‘gaslighting,’ by the way, 1944), Robert Siodmak’s vastly underrated The Spiral Staircase (1945), and Alfred Hitchcock’s only Best Picture winner, Rebecca (1940), to which del Toro plays an enormous homage in terms of tone, story, and imagery (though he also mentions Psycho as an influence during the commentary). On the dreamier side of the genre was Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and Robert Wise’s non-horror follow-up The Curse of the Cat People (1944) – both films produced by Val Lewton that use Gothic horror and romantic themes to disguise metaphors for feminine sexuality at a time when censorship wouldn’t allow for more explicit discussion (Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie, 1943, was even essentially a retelling of Jane Eyre).
These ‘40s Goth-noirs also established Vincent Price as the default leading man for Gothic Romance. Price appeared in key roles (most of them ambiguously antagonistic) during Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ Dragonwyck (1946; 2019 note: I’ve seen Dragonwyck now and del Toro definitely pulled inspiration from it), and these led him to starring roles in a long series of increasingly campy horror movies. The most apt of these in terms of comparisons to Crimson Peak are Roger Corman’s full-color Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. All six movies in the Poe Cycle fit the Gothic model, but there were three that coincide with del Toro’s film. The first was Fall of the House of Usher (aka: House of Usher,1960) and it may be the closest thing to a direct-line forefather of Crimson Peak. Both films revolve around an audience surrogate love-interest that meets a pair of ‘cursed’ siblings – the last in their family line – who live in a dilapidated mansion that is a metaphor for their fragile bodies and corrupted souls. Del Toro adds more back-story and flips (and perverts) the gender roles of the siblings. He borrowed the terrifying basement motif in part from the second film in the series, Pit and the Pendulum (1961), a film that gave Price the chance to chew scenery as both the victim and the villain. Other apt comparisons could be made to the final film in the series, The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), with its stronger female lead, tragic romance, and Price’s fashionable Victorian sunglasses (Tom Hiddleston sports the same specs in Crimson Peak).
The ne plus ultra of Gothic Romance filmmaking came from Italy’s Mario Bava. Bava, who worked as a cinematographer, assistant/2nd unit director, and special effects supervisor on other directors’ films, made his solo directing debut with Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio, 1960). Black Sunday introduced a new standard in the visual refinement of Gothic horror that del Toro is still evoking for Crimson Peak, despite the fact that it was shot in black & white. In addition, the Poe-like familial curses and disapproving siblings once again rear their head in Bava’s screenplay, which was based on a short story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol entitled Viy (first published in 1835). But Black Sunday merely a wind-up for his two definitive works of Gothic Romance. The first was The Whip and the Body (Italian: La frusta e il corpo, 1963), the scandalously erotic (for 1963) story of a masochistic woman that is haunted by ghost of her sadistic lover. Bava’s second attempt at fully redefining the genre was Lisa and the Devil (Italian: Lisa e il diavolo, 1973). Lisa and the Devil begins as an almost postmodern version of Gothic Romance motifs, as the early acts are to Poe/Brontë as Scream is to ‘80s slashers. A modern American tourist – named Lisa, naturally – is invited to stay the night in a spooky, rococo mansion with a strange aristocratic Spanish family. As she discovers the skeletons in the family’s closet and falls in love with their youngest son, Bava’s various visual allegories begin to add up and the possibility that Lisa is already dead rears its head. Producer Alfredo Leone was not fond of Lisa and the Devil’s existential dread and esoteric images (or its lack of box office receipts) and recut the film with new footage into a generic, but entertaining Exorcist rip-off called The House of Exorcism. Kill Baby, Kill (Italian: Operazione paura, 1966), Baron Blood (Italian: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, 1972), and Bava’s final film, Shock (aka: Beyond the Door II, 1977) also fit the Gothic Romance mould in one way or another.
Bava’s ‘60s films were quickly met by other Italian Gothics and, if Vincent Price was the era’s default male antagonist and antihero, British scream queen Barbara Steele was its default female antagonist and antiheroine. Besides star-making appearances in Black Sunday and The Pit and the Pendulum, Steele lent her intense gaze to a series of Italian-made, black & white Gothic Romances, including Riccardo Freda’s The Ghost (Italian: Lo Spettro, 1963), Antonio Margheriti’s The Long Hair of Death (Italian I lunghi capelli della morte, 1964), Margheriti & Sergio Corbucci’s Castle of Blood (Italian: Danza Macabra[, 1964), Domenico Massimo Pupillo’s Terror-Creatures from the Grave (Italian: 5 tombe per un medium, 1965), Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle ((Italian: Amanti d’oltretomba, 1965), and Camillo Mastrocinque’s An Angel for Satan (Italian: Un angelo per Satana, 1966). Also on the Italian spectrum of Gothic Romance was Camillo Mastrocinque’s Crypt of the Vampire (Italian: La cripta e l'incubo, 1964), Alberto De Martino’s The Blancheville Monster (aka: Horror, 1963), Luigi Bazzoni & Franco Rossellini’s The Possessed (Italian: La donna del lago, 1965), Ferruccio Casapinta’s The Doll of Satan (Italian: La bambola di Satana, 1969), and Damiano Damiani’s hypnotic and underseen The Witch (Italian: La strega in amore, 1966).
Dario Argento, the man that picked up Bava’s baton as the poster boy for Italian horror, also made female-centric and stylish scary movies, including Suspiria (1977), Phenomena (1985), Opera (1987), and The Stendhal Syndrome (1996). These films are not traditionally ‘Gothic’; rather, Argento (at his best) tended to build on the visual stereotypes of Gothic and Expressionist film and subverted the images with brighter lighting and vivid colours. Perhaps it’s Post-Gothic? A Baroque Romance? The beautiful and searing acrylics of Suspira had a profound effect on all of del Toro’s movies, not just Crimson Peak (though school/society girl cruelness runs through both pictures). Bava and Argento were instrumental in the Italian giallo thriller tradition during its super-popular ‘70s era (from which del Toro borrows his mystery killer’s black leather gloves). Most gialli were modernist, fashionable murder mysteries told from a male perspective, usually a cop or a put-upon amateur detective. But there was a tradition of leading roles for women in Bava’s earliest gialli, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka: The Evil Eye, 1963) and Blood & Black Lace (1964), as well as female villains, thanks to Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Furthermore, gialli were initially inspired by the likes of Hitchcock, Cukor, and Siodmak. In addition, the genre’s utter saturation during the ‘70s and the increasing popularity of straight horror movies in the region did lead to some Gothic-flavoured entries. Emilio Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (Italian: La notte che Evelyn uscì dalla tomba, 1971) and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (Italian: La dama rossa uccide sette volte, 1972) are likely the closest thing to straight giallo Gothic Romance (coincidentally, Arrow Video announced the double-feature Blu-ray release of both Miraglia films as I was writing this).
There’s no on-the-books rule stating that the ‘romance’ of a Gothic Romance needs to be between a woman and a man, and this insures that lesbian-themed or sapphic vampire movies often fit the mould. The tradition that was hazily introduced by Gaumont’s Les Vampires serial (1915–16), which developed into a complete subgenre with the help of Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (French: Et mourir de plaisir [Le sang et la rose], 1960) and Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (France: Les Lèvres rouges; Belgium: Le Rouge aux lèvres, 1971) – both quintessential Gothic Romance pictures. In addition, Jean Rollin’s expanded filmography included literally dozens of illusory vampire and lesbian themed films, many of which took place in isolated Gothic locations. The UK’s Hammer Studios was known as the company that brought Gothic back into vogue with colour photography and boundary-pushing sex & violence. Arguments could be made that all of Hammer’s horror movies fit the Gothic Romance label (Terrence’s Fisher Brides of Dracula, 1960 and Seth Holt’s Taste of Fear, aka: Scream of Fear, 1961 in particular) and del Toro definitely pays homage to filmmakers Terrence Fisher, Peter Sasdy, and Freddie Francis throughout his filmography, but even the romance-heavy Dracula series tended to askey the feminine point-of-view. Really, the model was best served by the studio’s sapphic vampire movies, specifically, the so-called Karnstein Trilogy (loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella, Carmilla) – Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (1970), Jimmy Sangster’s Lust for a Vampire (1971), and John Hough’s Twins of Evil (1971).
If you’re still looking for films that may have inspired Crimson Peak that might not technically fit everyone’s version of Gothic Romance, I’d recommend Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ornate Technicolor study of lustful nuns, Black Narcissus (1947). The use of colour, the gender roles, and isolated locations are all reflected in del Toro’s work. Also, while Japanese ghost stories, or kaidan, are rarely associated with the Gothic Romance model, del Toro has clearly drawn some influence from the horror films of the region, especially in the design and movements of his ‘monsters’ (note that all but one of the ghosts are women). And, when you break down the needs of a Gothic Romance, early kaidan meet many of the expectations, especially in terms of a feminine perspective, for example; Nobuo Nakagawa’s The Ghost of Yotsuya (Japanese: Tōkaidō Yotsuya kaidan, 1959), Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964), Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968), and especially Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953). Then, there are modern films that could be classified as ‘postmodern Gothic Romance’ – movies that build upon, reference, and modernize the genre’s tropes, such as Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1988), Park Chan-wook’s Stoker (also starring Mia Wasikowska, 2013), Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (also starring Mia Wasikowska, 2013), Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2015), and del Toro’s own Spanish language ‘fairytale horror’ releases, Cronos (1993) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). I mean, you could also watch a number of Tim Burton movies – specifically Sleepy Hollow (1999) – but I’m guessing most of you already did that.
Crimson Peak was shot using Arri Alexa XT digital HD cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 1.85:1 (side note: I really think del Toro should’ve broken with his 1.85:1 aspect ratio tradition, since so many of the films he is evoking were shot in 2.35:1). For the record, this marks only the third time del Toro has worked with a digital format, following Pacific Rim and the pilot episode of The Strain. It is also his first feature working with Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen since Mimic back in 1997 (every subsequent film was shot by Guillermo Navarro). This is notable, because Pacific Rim was so effects-heavy that it was hard to judge whether or not del Toro’s visual mannerisms would ‘work’ without the added specific texture of chemical photography. The results are mixed. For the most part, del Toro and Lausten’s choices are typically lush, including tight black edges, complex patterns, and a super vivid orange/gold, green, and red palette. However, the attempts to capture the more atmospheric texture of film with dust, soft focus, high contrast, and, of course, smoke do sometimes lead to significant and slightly annoying digital noise problems. I seriously doubt this is the result of compression, because there isn’t any notable blocking or edge enhancement. The issue applies mostly to the warmest orange and red hues and abates quite a bit when the film moves away from the searingly orange city. The mansion set includes more subtle blue and green elements, softer lighting, and busier details. All of this leads to a cleaner and smoother image, though the fuzzy highlight hues continue to raise their head during the darkest sequences (specifically when a dark blue/green set is lit by a particularly orange lighting source).
Crimson Peak is presented in DTS:X 7.1 with a core DTS-HD Master Audio track that I am reviewing here. I found the volume a smidge low, which is exactly the same minor issue I’ve had with other DTS:X releases. This leads me to believe that it’s less of a mastering problem and more a problem with the DTS-HD core being a bit compressed. Regardless, the sound design matches the expectations of a modern spook story, including oodles of warm and crisp environmental ambience. For the most part, the mix is subtle in its approach to directional movement, echo, and spooky off-screen action. The big scares offers contrast in the form of brassy, loud thrills. Composer Fernando Velázquez’ score (with orchestrations by Ryan Humphrey – a friend of a friend, so I’m making sure to mention his accomplishments here, *thumbs up emoticon*) pushes the sweet side of the non-horror sequences a bit too far for my taste, but, when a bleak atmosphere is required, the deep resonance of operatic strings hits the spot.
Commentary with Guillermo del Toro – Another typically educational and full-bodied track from del Toro. The tone of this track is a hair more serious than some of the director’s other commentaries, including some somewhat awkward condemnation of his critics, but the actual content is great. Besides offering a primer on the history of Gothic Romance as a literary movement (complete with cited intellectual sources), del Toro discusses his personal perspective on the story, the intended subtext, visual themes (I missed the whole ‘moths vs. butterflies’ motif, despite one character literally spelling it out), as well as his inspirations. When I chose to write a ‘must-see’ Gothic Romance editorial instead of a traditional review, I expected those inspirations to be highly filmic, but del Toro largely mentions historical, artistic, and literary origins. I suppose this means much of my ‘review’ is conjecture, rather than being based on specific director statements.
Five deleted/extended scenes (4:30, HD)
I Remember Crimson Peak: The Gothic Corridor (4:10, HD) – In the first of these four promotional behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew, the director recalls his fear of corridors and the particularly baroque hallway that appears in the film.
I Remember Crimson Peak: The Scullery (4:20, HD) – The second featurette explores the ‘scullery’ set (what us unwashed masses would probably call ‘the kitchen’) and the tea-making sequence.
I Remember Crimson Peak: The Red Clay Mines (5:20, HD) – The third featurette concerns the spooky, red clay-caked basement set and what it represents.
I Remember Crimson Peak: The Limbo Fog Set (5:40, HD) – The final piece sees the cast and crew recalling the final battle in the white fog.
A Primer on Gothic Romance (5:40, HD) – Though brief, this featurette offers a nice rundown of the genre with illustrations and interviews with the cast & crew.
The Light and Dark of Crimson Peak (7:50, HD) – A look at the cinematography, production design, costume design, and the importance of both culture and colour in the film.
Hand Tailored Gothic (9:00, HD) – A deeper exploration of the wardrobe with del Toro and costume designer Kate Hawley.
A Living Thing (12:10, HD) – More on the design of the mansion sets and what they represent with del Toro and production designer Tom Sanders.
Beware of Crimson Peak (7:50, HD) – Tom Hiddleston leads a walking tour of the Allerdale Hall set.
Crimson Phantoms (7:00, HD) – One final featurette concerning the design and execution of the Crimson Peak ghosts. It includes illustrations, pre-digital make-up effects, and post-digital final products.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.