Crimson Peak is a movie you really have to buy into to what it’s doing and how it’s doing it in order to appreciate it. That could be said of all movies, really, but I think it’s especially true for Guillermo del Toro’s latest, more of a Gothic romance horror picture than a straight-up ghost story. Maybe people seem disappointed that it’s not all that “scary,” but I’ll go for over the top emotions and creepiness over straightforward horror any day. There’s a really good test to see whether you’ll like this film: if you liked the Gothic excess of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this is a film for you.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring novelist, more interested in dramas featuring the supernatural (“the ghosts are a metaphor for the past!”) than trying to catch a rich husband. However, she might just be lucky enough to get both! Though her father disapproves of the dissolute baronet from across the pond, Thomas Sharp (Tom Hiddleston), he isn’t around long enough to quash the romance and they get married. Ostensibly, Thomas and his creepy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), only want her money to realize Thomas’ invention that will extract the vibrant red clay from underneath their property, Edith is somewhat oblivious to this. However, not all is as it seems, when they get to the titular Crimson Peak, she becomes plagued both by spirits haunting the house and the creepy attentions of Lucille.
First and foremost, and the reason I wanted to see the movie in the first place, is the design of the house. The visuals in this film are amazing, mostly due to production design by Thomas Sanders, who interestingly enough also worked on the aforementioned Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and costume design. They build most of the design of the house into the story, like how the Sharp’s are so poor they can’t afford to fix the roof so leaves and snow continually pile up in the foyer. What seems to be blood running down the walls and collecting in vats in the basement is due to the red clay that exists under the mountain where they live. It all has a reason for being there, but the visual impact on the film is not to be underestimated. (sidenote: rooting for this to get an Oscar later in the year!) The costume design is also superb, perfectly capturing the Gothic roots of the story, and doing a lot to differentiate the two different female characters in the film.
Like the last film I reviewed, Don’t Look Now, Crimson Peak has an ambivalence toward the supernatural forces that it depicts, in this case ghosts. One of the central mysteries of the film is not so much whether or not Thomas and Lucille are up to no good, but whether it is natural or supernatural forces that cause them to do the things that they do. Ghosts continually appear to Edith throughout the film, and they’re pretty terrifying. Rather than try to harm her, they warn her of danger in the most horrific way possible. It’s an interesting tactic, but the ghosts don’t seem to be dangerous. In the end, humans tend to be more sinister than ghosts, something that the film certainly draws from its influences.
And boy does this film draw from influences. That was half the fun for me really, as not only do I love this type of story, but as such can see a lot of where del Toro is getting it from. A lot of plot points come straight out of Dracula, but the most interesting for me was its inclusion of turn of the century technology, something you don’t see as much of in period films. The recordings on wax cylinders, attempts to photograph ghosts, and the focus on Thomas’s mining contraption really set you in that specific time period, where so much was changing in frighting ways both technologically and socially. The threat of female sexuality so central to most Gothic stories plays a really big part in this film as well, in ways I really don’t want to go into for fear of spoiling the ending. Furthermore, there are a lot of nods to Hitchcock, especially Rebecca (as a Gothic-influenced novel in itself) and Notorious, with all of its focus on poisoned cups and labeled keys.
I really, really liked Crimson Peak. It can’t be called subtle by any means, and it really isn’t going to work for everyone, but I liked it a lot and had a great time in the movie theater. It’s a very old school movie that might get a little messy at times, the acting might not always be there, but it comes so close to really knocking it out of the park. The production design is the real star here, and it’s worth seeing in a theater just for that. But like I said in the intro, if you like this sort of over the top, Gothic-influenced, melodramatic twisted horror/romance sort of movie, this one is really for you.
“Love makes monsters of us all.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
For Further Reading: