Editor’s Notes: Crimson Peak is currently out in wide theatrical release. For more on the film read Crimson Peak: Bad News for Anyone Looking for Thrills and Chills.
Beware all ye who enter here! Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Crimson Peak, is not the horror-filled ghost story it’s being promoted as but rather like is first masterpiece The Devil’s Backbone (and his protagonist Edith’s (Mia Wasikowska) novel), a story with horror and ghosts. It is more indebted to Hitchcock’s Notorious and the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley than it is to something like the Paranormal Activity films. Del Toro doesn’t waste his time offering up cheap scares, but rather builds to a more startling conclusion that involves ghosts but focuses on the horrible tendencies of people.
Del Toro doesn’t waste his time offering up cheap scares, but rather builds to a more startling conclusion that involves ghosts but focuses on the horrible tendencies of people.
The story is that of Edith Cushing, an aspiring novelist and daughter to a wealthy Buffalo, NY business owner Carter (Jim Beaver, best known from his roles on TV’s Supernatural, Deadwood and Justified). Edith’s mother died when she was very young, but that was not the last time she saw her. Days after the funeral, the ghost of her mother appeared to her, warning her to beware Crimson Peak, when the time was right.
Her novel is rejected for being a ghost story with no romance, though she insists it’s not a ghost story but a story with ghosts and it doesn’t need a love story. Undeterred, she decides to type the manuscript to send it to New York. While typing in her father’s office, she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) from England who is an inventor trying to raise capital on an invention that can mine the red clay of his estate in England, clay he states would make much harder brick. Carter and the Buffalo business heads reject his request for money, but Thomas stays in town to hobnob with the social elite.
As Carter and Edith’s childhood friend (and ever-rejected suitor) Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) are leaving to attend a formal reception for Sir Thomas and his sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith cannot be convinced to attend. While home alone (well, with the servants), she sees the ghost of her mother again. Before any more warnings can be uttered, there is a knock at the door and Edith is advised that Thomas is waiting for her downstairs. She reluctantly goes to see him and he ends up getting her to go to the reception.
Thomas begins courting Edith, though when a secret is discovered about him by a private investigator (Burn Gorman from TV’s Torchwood), Carter forces Thomas to break off the courtship and leave Buffalo. Carter is murdered by an unknown assailant in his club the next morning and Edith finds Thomas still in town. She weds him and leaves accompanies him and Lucille to their ramshackle English mansion following her father’s funeral. Now in the house, called Crimson Peak in the winter because of the red clay bleeding through the white snow, she begins to unravel all of the terrible secrets shared by the Sharpes.
Every shot is gorgeous, filled to the edges of his frame with interesting things.
That seems like a lot to get through to finally get to the mansion and the ghosts, right? Wrong. del Toro and screenwriting partner Matthew Robbins (who has worked with del Toro before on Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Mimic, as well as writing the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s debut feature The Sugarland Express as well as doing an uncredited pass on Close Encounters of the Third Kind) let you get to know the characters and their facades before delving into the reasons the Sharpes are desperate for money and just what is going on at their estate. To have jumped in there and either flashed back to Buffalo or to cut that part down would have made the film shlock horror with no rooting characters to feel for, and that is thankfully not del Toro’s style. He wants you to go with Edith on her journey, keep you guessing as much as she is and do what he can to deliver on some shocks and horrors along the way. To do this, he orchestrated a grand gothic period piece and borrows from Shelley obliquely to set mood and atmosphere and Hitchcock’s Notorious specifically once we’re in the mansion. People who know that film will immediately recognize the theft of a key for investigative purposes and an illness that crops up suddenly when she starts living in the mansion and escalates when she ‘knows too much’. They also pull a little from V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic to intensify the relationship between Thomas and Lucille. It’s these acknowledgements of gothic horror and suspense that while some may call them lazy, it’s really showing they know where this film is coming from and use these influences to their own ends, not just throwing them in for people who know them. Robbins and del Toro fashion real characters, ones that you can stand behind or know for certain that you wouldn’t want to stand in front of.
Then of course there is the masterful work del Toro does behind the camera. Every shot is gorgeous, filled to the edges of his frame with interesting things. He does rely on computer graphics a lot, especially for his ghost design, in a way he hasn’t really before (save Pacific Rim) but in many ways that may be a necessary evil for him to adopt to tell his story convincingly. The sequences preceding the trip to England are straight out of the pages of Jane Austin and Edith Wharton, shot sumptuously with a gold tone to the color to illustrate the candle and gas light and the posh clothes of the upper crust. He also utilizes ornate camera moves and angles to simulate that Edith is not alone when she thinks she is and shouldn’t trust the ones she’s with when she isn’t alone. The design he uses for the mansion is awe-inspiring and worthy of a production design Oscar by itself, and then the way he uses the dilapidated mansion to inspire more fear than the ghosts do is actually kind of stunning.
He also uses a very slow pace to draw us in. The pace may undo the film for some, because it isn’t a fast-paced scare-um-up startle-fest. It takes the best of the romance novels of the time and translates them expertly into film, like Martin Scorsese did with The Age of Innocence, playing his hand close to his chest and only revealing things subtly so we’re intrigued enough to keep going but not spelling things out for us to figure it out all at once (unless you’re actively trying to figure it all out and ruin your time in the movie).
The acting borrows a lot from those novels as well, with Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain delivering performances straight out of the Victorian age. Hiddleston hits his mark with a mannered and genteel performance that masks his true intention, though he shows signs of being weary of his goals. Chastain is great as the hard-nosed sister that has more skin in the game than just trying to salvage her family name and fortune. Hunnam is a bit stiff, but he was in Pacific Rim too, so that could just be his style. He’s not bad, just perhaps not the best fit for the role. It’s Wasikowska that really shines here, getting to spread her wings and inhabit Edith. She’s able to pull off strong, confident woman and scared inner-little girl at nearly the same moment, able to muster strength when you’d think she’d falter and succumb to the situation. This may finally be the role that makes people stand up and acknowledge the wonderful and powerful performances she’s been giving for years now.
Crimson Peak is not what it is being marketed as and that will hurt it in the short run. Many will be going in expecting wall-to-wall terror with ghosts popping up at every turn to terrorize and do harm to Wasikowska’s Edith and will likely get bored when they realize that’s not what the film is. That is a shame, because the film is a measured and intense exploration of what does and what should scare us and that both are often not the same thing. Over time, the film will hopefully be considered for what it is: a masterpiece of fear, manners and expectation-subverting horror. Crimson Peak will likely stand next to del Toro’s best films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth as well as serving for an audition of sorts to finally get his adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s Mountain of Madness made. One can hope.
Over time, the film will hopefully be considered for what it is: a masterpiece of fear, manners and expectation-subverting horror. Crimson Peak will likely stand next to del Toro’s best films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth as well as serving for an audition of sorts to finally get his adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s Mountain of Madness made. One can hope.