Published on November 5th, 2015 | by Vyctoria Hart0
Crimson Peak Review
Ghosts are real, that much I know. I’ve seen them all my life…
“Beware of Crimson Peak!” So warns the inevitable spectre as we begin Guillermo del Toro’s latest film. From the very outset Crimson Peak sets up an atmosphere of disquiet and unease, plus a hideously rotting phantasm and a few jump scares. As the director who brought us the harrowing beauty of Pan’s Labyrinth or the more recent bombast of Pacific Rim and the Hellboy movies; what else can you expect from this master of combining dark fantasy horror with sumptuous visuals?
Crimson Peak is a a pure Victorian Gothic Romance of old school literature. Complete with flowing nightgowns, a terrifying crumbling mansion, and a tortured nobleman; this film embraces every trope of its genre. The year is 1901 and Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Only Lovers Left Alive) plays Edith Cushing. The young daughter of a wealthy American industrialist, Edith is an aspiring author of a gothic horror with little interest in romance. As a child she was visited by the ghost of her mother, whose cryptic warning has shaped her view of the world. Her manuscript attracts the attention of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston – Thor, War Horse, Only Lovers Left Alive), a penniless British Baronet who has travelled to America with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain – The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) in search of funding for his mining operation. The Sharpe family home – Allerdale Hall – sits atop a mine that produces clay of an incredibly lurid red hue. With Lucille’s encouragement Thomas attempts to court young Edith. This budding romance interrupted when her father comes into possession of some disturbing information about Sir Thomas. In proper Gothic tradition, rather than speaking to his previously levelheaded daughter about the matter, her father chooses to bribe Thomas into breaking her heart instead. Fortunately for the Sharpes, fate (with the help of a mysterious black glad figure) immediately renders Edith an orphan.
We next meet Edith as she arrives at Allerdale Hall as the new Lady Sharpe. Back in America her father’s estate is being broken up and the assets are slowly being transferred to her control. Meanwhile in England she is being introduced to the creepy elderly foreman and discovering the true depths of Thomas’s poverty. The foyer of Allerdale Hall is missing it’s roof and the house itself is sinking into the clay. This hideous red ooze seeps up through the floorboards, drips down the walls of the kitchen and stains even the bathwater. There are no servants inside the house, though Edith swears she someone in the dilapidated elevator that leads directly into the mine beneath the house. This brief vision is the just the beginning of the mysterious and terrifying things that Edith will find haunting the corridors of Allerdale Hall, or Crimson Peak as it is known when the clay tints the snow a bloody red.
To say that this movie is over the top is to suggest that the International Space Station is slightly above sea level. I’m not saying that this as a bad thing- Crimson Peak is so far over the top in places that you need a telescope to see it and. It. Is. GLORIOUS. By the end of the film the walls of Allerdale Hall are literally running red (with “clay”, allegedly); in fact the entire landscape is red. As she learns more of the facts about her new family Edith’s clothing is stained red from the hem upwards and the already dilapidated house follows suit. Despite this lurid colouring, this film is not really a splatterfest. The horror here is as much about fear the unknown and the threat of the living, as it is about the ghosts themselves. Del Toro is very selective with his physical violence, in much the same style as Pan’s Labyrinth. This makes a scene where an outburst leads to no actual injury just as effective as another moment that was so horrible it made the entire cinema audience cringe and cry out. The portrayal of the ghosts is often in anatomically realistic but mangled skeletal forms; however del Toro also keeps them in limited unnatural palettes. This allows the viewer to gradually recognise them as pitiful creatures in need of empathy rather than any real threat. Every design decision has been made with careful consideration to the deeper meaning of the plot and then turned up to eleven. The family crest is basically a gruesome skull. A monogram of FEAR appears all over the place. There are gothic embellishments on top of gothic embellishments and yet this excess never really feels absurd. You know every moment that you’re watching a Guillermo del Toro film and the decaying decadence feels appropriate given characters involved. There are a few misteps. For example, a shot that lingered slightly too long over a portrait of the Sharpes’ crone-like mother generated quite raucous laughter at a really inappropriate moment. For the most part though, the set design feeds perfectly into the atmosphere, and when the newlyweds are able to briefly escape their oppressive home the change of scenery makes their connection all the more believable.
Speaking the newlyweds, the cast is just as important as the design work. The central triumvirate of Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain give stirling performances as the claustrophobic Sharpe family. Jessica Chastain gives a fantastic performance as the slowly unravelling Lucille, alternating between subtlety and chewing on the scenery with the blink of an eye. Sir Thomas Sharpe gives Tom Hiddleston the perfect opportunity to run the gamut from suave to vicious and from browbeaten to passionate. Whilst Chastain’s Lucille is always aloof and increasingly sinister, Sir Thomas keeps the viewer guessing about his true motives until the very end. The Loki fandom can attest to Hiddleston’s ability to make the viewer root for the not-so-good guy but in this case it never goes too far – he’s the doomed, tortured, possibly evil love interest and the viewer will be comfortable with the end the story chooses for him. As a fan of Only Lovers Left Alive it was especially interesting to see Wasikowska in a romantic pairing with Hiddleston, rather than a combative one. Despite their really effective chemistry the character of Edith never really becomes subjugated by her new role as wife and sister-in-law living in the ancient family seat. Like every great Gothic Heroine, Edith is occasionally scared but each time she soon regains control over her own life despite all the threats surrounding her. When she first introduced as an adult a spiteful acquaintance describes her as “our very own Jane Austen, she died an old maid, didn’t she?” to which Edith replies “Actually, I’d rather be Mary Shelly; she died a widow.” Repeatedly she takes control and stands up against the most horrible of situations. This independent streak is emphasised by Charlie Hunnam’s (Pacific Rim, Sons of Anarchy) character as Edith’s doctor friend in New York. He’s romantically interested in Edith and concerned about her relationship with Sir Thomas, but like many Gothic Romance white knights he’s not actually concerned enough the take any action about it. At least until the couple are already out of the country and her father’s suspiciously injured corpse is already in the ground. Of course at this point he discovers the same information that lead to her fathers death and follows the Sharpes to England, where Edith ends up having to save him as well as herself. Which is ultimately the lesson of all the good Gothic Romances – the best damsel in the distress is the one who saves herself, not the one who waits for someone else to do it for her.
As a long time fan of not just the director but the genre and the lead actor I was a little concerned that Crimson Peak might not live up to it’s potential, but for the most part it fulfilled everything I wanted in a movie like this. I do think that the viewer is best off going into the film either with a knowledge of the Gothic Romance genre or at least with an understanding that this isn’t a true modern horror film. Whilst there are some very modern moments of graphic violence this isn’t a slasher film; the violence is a garnish that helps the suspense and atmospheric terror shine through. As long as you don’t go into the cinema expecting some Freddie Kruger style murder fest, I think there are elements here to satisfy most people. I recommend seeing it whilst it’s still in theatres since, as always, del Toro’s gorgeous designs deserve a big screen.