Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"It starts holding onto things... keeping them alive when they shouldn't be."
The last half-decade of horror has belonged to ghosts, and it somehow feels appropriate the history of this particular sub-genre has lingered like a specter. Haunted house movies have become haunted by their own past, as the likes of Insidious and The Conjuring have taken audiences back to the 80s and 70s, respectively. With Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro looks even further into the past in more ways than one: from a cinematic perspective, it recalls the baroque, lavish productions of Hammer Films or Roger Corman’s AIP output. However, his gaze also stretches all the way back to the genre’s literary roots: as it turns out, Crimson Peak is a lush, Gothic romance in the purest sense. It’s less a ghost story and more a perverse, lustful tale accented by the unrested spirits of both the living and the dead.
Guided by spirits of Bronte, Byron, Shelley, and Walpole, Crimson Peak is a period piece bursting at the seams with grandeur and sensation. 19th-century Upstate New York serves as an unlikely launching point for such a dark, moody tale; drenched in sunlight and the Victorian ideal of progress, it’s far removed from dreary moors and moonlit castles of Gothic literature. Nonetheless, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has been troubled by a sense of loneliness and loss ever since her mother’s untimely death. Convinced that her mother’s spirit visited her as a child with a cryptic, foreboding warning, she has grown up to be something of an outsider in social circles, toiling away to follow in the footsteps of Mary Shelley despite sexist obstacles in her path. When mysterious British aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Thomas Hiddleston) arrives in town, she’s the only lady in town who isn’t swept off of her feet—until he baronet (who is in town seeking money from Edith’s tycoon father) begins to court her, much to the surprise of the town.
Her father is particularly horrified, especially when he uncovers a disturbing secret from Sharpe’s past. Undeterred, the gentleman continues to woo Edith, who finds herself enraptured by his affection, so much so that she is quickly married to him and whisked away to Allerdale Hall, Sharpe’s decaying estate resting atop an isolated English mountaintop. Together with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Sharpe has lived in the house his entire life, which has been ample time for the estate to amass its share of sinister secrets and disquieted ghosts. Soon, Edith discovers that she has become the unwitting protagonist in a story that’s equal parts romantic, tragic, and sordid.
In short, Crimson Peak feels like the perfect adaptation of a long lost or forgotten 18th century novel. Given del Toro’s noted affection for Frankenstein, it’s hardly a surprise that he’s gone and crafted the sort of novel Mary Shelley helped to popularize. From its outset, it feels unrestrained as it bears its heart on its sleeve: “ghosts are real,” Edith intones, leaving little doubt about its willingness to unabashedly plunge into the phantasmagoric. Crimson Peak is not coy about its intentions, even if its horror elements are rarely deployed to jolt audiences. Del Toro seems to have drafted a response to the rash of inelegant chair-jumpers in recent years, and the message—delicately delivered in the finest, most ornate envelope imaginable—is an impassioned echo of the genre’s ancestral voices, here boldly conjured with hushed tones and primal wails.
Crimson Peak sometimes feels less like a movie and more like an incantation, one that’s attempting to summon the ghosts of genre past in a way few films could ever hope to do. The phrase “gothic horror” has become a bit of a personal shorthand to describe any film that vaguely recaptures classic horror, but del Toro matches his literary influences to his cinematic ones. Val Lewton's penchant for brooding melodrama is matched with a garish update of Hammer’s ornate house style, while the lush color palettes of Corman’s Poe adaptations bathe the proceedings in an otherworldly glow. Taking your eyes off of Crimson Peak proves to be impossible, even when it indulges graphic bursts of violence and terror. Every frame washes over your eyeballs, overloading them with the gorgeous and the macabre.
No stranger to that peculiar paring, del Toro has mounted his most striking melding yet with Allerdale Hall, an absurd, overwrought structure that remains graceful even as its crumbling foundation sinks slowly into the ground. In many ways, it operates as the film’s central metaphor, as its slow, inevitable descent mirrors its inhabitants’ inescapable decline into madness, perversion, and violence. In true gothic fashion, danger lurks behind every nook, cranny, and crevice, with each disturbance taking on an appropriately dramatic tenor: the rusty pipes roar as loudly as the east wind howl, and every ghastly disturbance hardly goes unnoticed. Scarlet wraiths—brought to life with a clever blend of gruesome practical effects and CGI embellishments—roam the halls, constantly making their presence known. They’re so alluring and repulsive that they can’t help but feel vital, even as it becomes clear that Crimson Peak is like Edith’s own manuscript: a story that only happens to have ghosts.
Calling the ghosts an exercise in misdirection isn’t quite right (they’re too embedded into the film’s mood to be reduced to that), but they certainly conceal true monstrosity hidden within Allerdale’s walls. To say that Sharpe is not everything he seems is hardly a surprise: he is the platonic ideal of the genre’s tall, dark, and handsome stranger, and the cryptic conversations with his sister are immediately ominous. Hiddleston’s performance reveals an intriguing complexity, though, as Sharpe emerges as a Byronic hero wrestling with his own demons. What could have been a one-note villain is transformed into a man who cannot control his warring urges: he longs to remain loyal to his family but also harbors a genuine love for Edith, and the resulting struggle results in the sort of forlorn, tortured souls often played by Vincent Price. With his boyish features, Hiddleston rarely seems threatening, and he never overreaches to force it: he’s a man who is certainly hiding something, yet you at least sense his guilt for doing so.
The same can’t be said for Lucille, Sharpe’s overtly morbid counterpart. Where her brother can at least put on charming airs, Lucille philosophizes about death, barely taking the effort to conceal her sinister intentions. While the dark romance between Hiddleston and Wasikowska forms the crux of Crimson Peak, Chastain is a delightfully wicked foil for both, lurking in the filmic shadows, waiting to pounce. Slowly but surely, Chastain stakes her claim with furtive glances and portentous line readings; eventually, she brandishes a butcher knife and take what is rightfully hers during climax that’s suspenseful, violent, and heart-breaking all at once. Like any gothic novel worth its salt, Crimson Peak eventually can’t contain its warring passions and unleashes them in tempestuous fashion. All that’s missing is a raging thunderstorm, here purposefully replaced with the incongruous grace of falling snow.
To the end, del Toro is committed to finding a haunting beauty amidst perversion, even if he isn’t in a particular hurry to unpack his secrets, many of which border on predictable. That this is the case hardly matters: at two hours long, Crimson Peak is more concerned with allowing its audience to luxuriate in its sumptuous aesthetic rather than twisting them into knots with a labyrinthine narrative. Despite its horrors, you can’t help but want to live in it; we are all Edith, a smart girl (played with terrific pluckiness by Wasikowska) who knows better but can’t help herself. At its core, the central appeal of gothic horror is its ability to prey on our fascination with the sublime, to be swept off of our feet into an emotional maelstrom that may destroy us.
Del Toro goes all-in with this: Crimson Peak is big, bold, and appropriately stilted. It’s a film that ultimately can’t contain itself and spills over with grand overtures. In the process, it merges the muted, measured sensibilities of del Toro’s Spanish language work with his more accessible, thrilling Hollywood pictures, finding a happy medium that allows Crimson Peak thrive as pure cinema. Ultimately, it stretches back even to the silent era through del Toro’s striking visuals, which hardly require dialogue. Crimson Peak communicates in such a familiar filmic language that we could do without if absolutely necessary. Characters creep through hallways lit by candelabra flames, while a menacing family portrait eerily looms in a decrepit study; eventually, characters stalk each other with knives, spilling the blood demanded by a decaying house on a haunted hill. Moths fall to the ground like snowflakes, a reminder of del Toro’s preoccupation with both the beauty and horror of insects.
Like them, we’re only here for a fleeting moment, desperately crawling over each other to remain a little longer. Some of the final images here suggest an ironic twist of fate, however, as desire becomes a prison, trapping damned souls but allowing them to linger. If that sounds a tad melodramatic, rest assured that Crimson Peak is unabashedly so—and I can’t help but be carried away by it, swooning every step of the way.
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