I’ve heard it said that trailers don’t show you the film you’re getting, but rather the film the studio wishes they had. I can’t remember the last time I saw a more perfect demonstration of that concept than Crimson Peak.
For the past several months, director/co-writer Guillermo Del Toro has been extremely vocal about how this movie was meant to be a gothic romance. But that hasn’t stopped Universal and Legendary from pushing this as a horror movie, which is far easier to sell. And there are times — particularly during the climax — when it’s clear that someone behind the scenes was trying to nudge the film toward more conventional horror territory.
It does a grave disservice to the film, because anyone who goes in expecting a horror movie won’t find enough scares or blood to keep them satisfied. But as a gothic romance story, draped in dark imagery and presented with macabre glee, it’s a very good time. Flawed, to be sure, but very good nonetheless.
Right off the bat, the film is very overt in stating its own terms. When our protagonist (Edith Cushing, played by Mia Wasikowska) is introduced, Jane Austen and Mary Shelley are both explicitly name-dropped, respectively as the type of author that Edith abhors and the type of author she aspires to be. Edith herself has prepared a manuscript that everyone brushes off as a “ghost story”, no matter how many times she insists that the story is merely a romance that happens to have ghosts in it. The ghosts are a metaphor for the past, she explains.
I only mention all of this because it’s presented in such a way that GDT is clearly telling us about his movie just as Edith is telling the other characters about her book.
Indeed, the plot is very heavily focused on matters of the past. And I’m not just talking about Edith’s departed mother, who’s been haunting the poor girl on a regular basis for at least the past decade. No, I’m talking about the Sharpe siblings, played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. It’s Thomas Sharpe who meets Edith while visiting New York on a business venture, before the two fall in love and eventually marry. But then Edith is taken back to the Sharpes’ ancestral home, and she begins unraveling the mystery of who the Sharpes are and what secrets they might have been keeping all this time.
The plot unfolds like a mystery in many ways, as we sort through various clues, lines of inquiry, and yes, a few red herrings (that are indeed very red, in this case). We’ve got the viscous blood-red clay that Allerdale Hall sits upon, we’ve got the distinctive wedding ring given to Edith, we’ve got the preoccupation with keeping Edith warm, there’s at least one murder to solve that we know of, and of course there’s money involved. That isn’t even getting started on all the various quirks and safety risks of the house, allegedly because the house is so old and because it is literally sinking into the clay foundations below.
All of that said, it’s not like the film is completely void of horror or paranormal happenings. We do have ghosts, all monstrous in appearance and terrifying in their movements, even though their motives and intended actions are ambiguous. The spectres could just as easily be benign as not. It’s very reminiscent of the ghost in The Devil’s Backbone, one of GDT’s earlier works. In fact, the ghosts in this movie look like The Devil’s Backbone with a budget — same semi-transparence, same thin and ashen flesh lightly draped over lucid skeletons, same blood and bodily fluids drifting into space, except now it’s all presented with the finest Hollywood magic that money can buy. It looks incredible.
(Side note: You can probably guess who played the ghosts in this movie, but it was indeed GDT’s favorite monster actor, Doug Jones.)
I don’t know if we have another director who revels in the macabre the way GDT does, and that fascination is absolutely infectious. From the close-ups of insects to the wide shots of Allerdale Hall’s cavernous corridors, there’s always a sense of wonder mixed in with the danger. There’s suspense and tension, but it comes from so much more than simply waiting for a jump scare or looking out for the killer. No, the suspense is there because we — like Edith — want to know what’s going on in this ancient and imposing house. And the tension is there because we have no idea how a clue will manifest, or what that clue might lead to.
In case the trailers didn’t make it obvious, one look at the house is enough to know that Allerdale Hall is its own character. The magnificent production design speaks for itself, and the house acts up in various ways that show a lot of personality. Aside from the various creaks and groans, not to mention the erratic fireplace and the rusty plumbing, we’ve also got clay seeping upwards to congeal into a thick red goop that looks eerily like blood. Sometimes, the clay even forms patterned stains.
Though my personal favorite touch is in the foyer, which stands directly underneath a big gaping hole in the roof. Which means that we get leaves and snow inside the house. It provides motion in an otherwise still house, and a disordered presence of nature in an otherwise immaculate man-made setting. And of course, it’s a constant reminder that no matter how beautifully this house may have been constructed, it is very slowly falling apart. Such a genius idea, really. It’s yet another way in which Allerdale Hall is imbued with a kind of spirit.
And of course, a lot of that has to do with the visuals as well. The camera movements are impeccable from start to finish, and the filmmakers show a masterful control of colors and shadows. The costume design is splendiferous, the CGI looks fantastic, the color mixing is perfectly on point… I don’t know what else to say, except that the visuals are absolutely flawless.
(Side note: Imagine my shock to find that the credited DOP was Dan Laustsen, previously of LXG and the 2006 cinematic adaptation of Silent Hill. Guillermo Navarro, who’s been GDT’s right-hand man for over 20 years, was nowhere to be seen in the credits. I wonder what the story was there.)
Moving onto the flesh-and-blood supporting characters, there really isn’t much to say. Charlie Hunnam doesn’t bring much to the proceedings aside from a pretty face, and fellow Pacific Rim alumnus Burn Gorman is similarly wasted. As for Jim Beaver, here playing Edith’s father, it’s immediately obvious from the first line of dialogue that he would either die or turn evil very quickly.
Luckily, our main players fare much better. It bears remembering that Mia Wasikowska plays the lead in a gothic romance after her career-defining turn in Jane Eyre (2011). She’s already played one of the most iconic characters in the history of gothic romance, and she knocked it out of the park. So naturally, she turns in sublime work here.
Unfortunately, our male lead is the kind of romantic wish-fulfillment character that comes standard with the genre (see also: Mr. Rochester of “Jane Eyre”, Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights”, etc.). So it’s a good thing that Tom Hiddleston has more than enough pathos and two-faced charm to flesh out the character. I’m sure it also helped that Hiddleston has an established history with Wasikowska, after they both played siblings (kinda sorta) in Only Lovers Left Alive.
As for Jessica Chastain, she seemed to have the absolute time of her life playing a stone-cold psychopath. I don’t know how it’s possible to radiate so much passionate hatred from a perfectly still face, but she managed it. The character is so much fun to hate, in large part because it’s so compelling to try and figure out what’s going on in that head of hers.
Now let’s move on to the nitpicks.
It pains me to say that a great deal of the story was predictable, but a lot of that comes with the territory. After all, the film takes a lot of its cues from gothic romance stories that have been done to death over time and were overly melodramatic to begin with. Plus, given the mystery setup with so many different plotlines going on at once, naturally some subplots are going to be weaker than others.
Which brings me to another problem: The pacing. It gets better when the plot shifts over to Allerdale Hall, but the film never quite finds a coherent and effective way to switch over and back through so many different storylines. It gives the impression that a lot of scenes were cut from the final movie, which is further evidenced by all the pathetically awful ADR on display.
All told, I have no problem giving Crimson Peak a recommendation. The plot may be predictable, and the character development may be thin at times, but there’s absolutely no denying that the visuals are nothing short of flawless. That counts for a lot in a ghost story so dripping with atmosphere, but that’s not the main reason why I’m recommending it.
No, I recommend Crimson Peak because we haven’t seen much of anything like it. Certainly not since the Hammer Horror films of yesteryear. Gothic romance isn’t a genre we see very much of anymore, aside from the odd adaptation of an established classic (again, see: Jane Eyre (2011)). But the filmmakers wholeheartedly embraced the style and very effectively made it their own.
The film has its flaws, but any movie crafted with this much creativity, effort, and raw unbridled passion is absolutely worth your time and money.