Published Oct 15, 2015Every so often, I think about how much I'd love a good gothic Victorian horror film, one that gets it all right: the damp darkness, the crumbling mansions, the whispery ghosts with bonnets, the never-ending cups of tea, the echo of an ancient piano in an empty foyer. And then Crimson Peak went and nailed it all.
Coupled with Guillermo del Toro's eye for the beautiful and fantastical, Crimson Peak is also the perfect Halloween movie; it's stylish, tense and fun. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a bright and curious young American woman attempting to get her beloved ghost story published when she meets mysterious English stranger Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his icy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Despite warnings from her father (Jim Beaver), her physician friend (Charlie Hunnam) and a creepy spirit, Edith falls for Thomas and accepts his proposal of marriage. Unfortunately, when Edith moves to the Sharpe home in Cumbria, she discovers their crumbling estate is more than just a fixer-upper; it's super haunted.
This house becomes the setting for the film's entire second half, becoming a character all on its own. It's almost ridiculously dilapidated: a giant hole in the ceiling results in snow and leaves blowing freely through the halls, the floors are sinking into a too-soft foundation and goopy red clay from an underground mine Thomas hopes to profit from leaks steadily through the walls. It's an impressive visual spectacle, a monument to every great haunted English manor, accentuated by del Toro's deft touches, like carpets of dying insects.
The house is such a strong presence that scenes outside of it don't resonate nearly as much. Charlie Hunnam, charming though he is, can't carry detective scenes that pry into the strange lives of the Sharpes, especially when we can barely stand to look away from the business of Edith, Thomas and Lucille. Perhaps his futility is the point — Edith is her own best rescuer, just as Lucille, a stunningly monstrous creation Chastain plays to seductive, disturbing, campy perfection, is the film's best villain. In the grand tradition of the Brontës (who probably would have loved Crimson Peak), men in this universe are largely ineffectual despite their tendency to see female counterparts as delicate.
The ghosts here don't have much to do, narratively speaking — it's a shame, as del Toro's ghosts in Crimson Peak are fantastic, dripping red skeletons with plumes of smoke curling from their fingers — but act as commentary on the nature of memory's construction. Del Toro has always been great at showing how human madness is far more frightening than the supernatural, and our capacity for ferociously clinging to false memories. When Dr. McMichael points out a colour-blind patient, telling Edith he'll never see greens or reds, it's hard not to notice those are the most predominant colours in the film.
Del Toro himself has stated in many interviews that his concepts for films stem from visuals, not plot, and it's obvious that Crimson Peak was conceived as a series of stunning visuals rather than a narrative-powered story, but in the end, the film's ambience is the story. It may not resonate as with fans of more minimalist, less elaborately fantastical horror, but if you've been waiting for someone to make Wuthering Heights crossed with Suspiria, you've come to the right place.