CRIMSON PEAK Review: A Sumptuous Gothic Ghost Story

Or rather a story with ghosts in it!

Crimson Peak is not very scary. It has scares, and it is spooky and creepy and tense, but it is not scary. That’s on purpose, because Crimson Peak is not technically a horror movie. Early on in the film Mia Wasikowska’s character, Edith, explains just what Crimson Peak is when submitting a manuscript to a skeptical publisher: “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a story with ghosts in it.”

If anything, Crimson Peak is more in line with Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy-infused Spanish language films. While The Devil’s Backbone has a ghost it’s hard to truly qualify that movie as a straight-down-the-middle horror film. Like Crimson Peak it has the signifiers, and it could happily sit on a similar shelf and reward your annual 31 Days Of Halloween movie binging, but it’s more complex than a genre label can indicate. These are movies with ghosts in them, but they are not ghost movies.

Pacific Rim was where del Toro gave his inner 13 year old boy free reign; Crimson Peak gives equal time to his inner 13 year old girl. A gothic romance, Crimson Peak is all about decaying mansions and withered aristocracy, sweeping heroic love and bitter villainous betrayal. The film’s mutilated ghosts appear to offer warnings and seek justice, not instill terror - although they do bring some of that along as well. It’s a film that mashes together The Fall of the House of Usher and Jane Eyre, that fuses the feel of the Penny Dreadfuls with the depth of Bronte. It’s a glorious movie that is unironic in the extreme, that happily serves up centuries old tropes with the delight of a new discovery, and that swoons as it spooks.

Edith lives in Buffalo, New York in the last days of the 19th century. She’s a writer, but no one takes her stories with ghosts in them seriously, even as she passionately explains that the ghosts are metaphors. Into her frustrated life swoops the tall, dark and handsome Sir Thomas Sharpe, looking for money to build a machine that can extract the red clay from beneath his decrepit ancestral home in England and return his family to the aristocracy. He dances with her, he enjoys her writing and he proposes to her. When Edith’s father dies in a brutal… accident, she goes off with him and his mysterious sister, Lady Lucille, to live at Allerdale Manor, deep in the moors of Northern England.

It is there that Edith begins to realize something is amiss, and as she explores the dilapidated mansion - there is a giant hole in the roof through which leaves and snow constantly fall, and the red clay beneath the house seeps up through the floorboards like thick, oozing blood - she uncovers ghastly secrets about the Sharpes and their history. Trapped miles from civilization she has the creepy siblings on one side and grotesque, screeching ghosts on the other.

I was entranced by Crimson Peak right from the start (despite some very distracting digital cinematography, which I hate in period settings), but once the action shifts to Allerdale Hall in the second half I was totally in love. A sumptuous location, Allerdale Hall puts Disney’s Haunted Mansion to shame in terms of deep, creepy gothic detail. The house breathes, Thomas Sharpe explains at one point, and while he’s talking about the wind through the chimney we understand - and see, and experience! - that the house is alive on a completely different level. If you can allow yourself to luxuriate in this setting, shot in bright, vivid colors and with a festishistic attention to the smallest particulars of the house, you will love Crimson Peak. It is a movie that functions as an experience, a film into which you sink and drift with the plot. The story unfolds in a way that some could uncharitably call rote; for me it had the clockwork precision of a genre exercise, a recreation of the hypnotic spell into which you fall while curled up under the covers, lost in the wordy and precise words of Victorian literature.

The true surprises in the film come not from the plot but from the emotions. Tom Hiddleston took over the role of Thomas Sharpe from Benedict Cumberbatch, and no greater accident has befallen del Toro in his casting yet. I don’t know what Cumberbatch’s Sharpe would have been like, but I can’t imagine it would have the wounded center Hiddleston brings effortlessly to the role. His aristocrat is warm and loving, which makes the eventual revelations about his true character all the more disturbing and odd. Hiddleston makes you fall in love with him as surely as Edith does, and in the end he breaks your heart as fully as he breaks hers. It's a wonderful performance, pitched perfectly on a line between deep emotional realism and broad fantasy, a line that Hiddleston seems able to walk in his sleep.

Wasikowska is a vision opposite him; a blonde angel given to flowing white gowns and beatific beauty. Is there an element of the Mary Sue in Edith? Perhaps, but Wasikowska imbues her with true life and, what’s more, with deep intelligence. It’s a hard role, as the structure of the film all but assures we will be a step or two ahead of Edith most of the movie; another actor would have lost our affection, but Wasikowska dives so deeply into the role that we are there with her every step of the way - even the steps we know she should not take, even as we love watching her explore the dusty dark halls of Allerdale with a candelabra in her hand, like she walked out of all of our Victorian fantasies.

Speaking of affection, it has become clear that Guillermo del Toro has a real affection for Charlie Hunnam, which I must confess I do not share. Hunnam’s stiffness was a major problem in Pacific Rim, but del Toro has here found just the right role for the guy - a straight man hero who may not be quite as useful as he likes to think he is. Del Toro refuses to make Edith into just another damsel in distress, and that means he undercuts some of the masculine heroism of Hunnam’s eye doctor Alan McMichael along the way - an undercutting that reads as a wonderful indictment of centuries of male-focused storytelling.

Rounding out the quartet of actors (the film has scope but is, in reality, intimate and small) is Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe. The less said about her the better, but know that you will never look at Chastain the same way again after Crimson Peak. She is a figure of dark malevolence, a pasty apparition of hate and doom. She glides through scenes in immaculate black, her scowl as terrifying as the ruined skull of one of Allerdale’s repeating phantoms. Lucille is a great character, a destroyed and dangerous character, and Chastain clearly relishes the opportunity to play someone so bad.

If Crimson Peak is a story with ghosts in it, how are the ghosts? They’re good, but perhaps not great. The film’s strengths lie in the extraordinary production design (if the production and costume designers don’t get Oscar nominations the entire awards season is a sham) and the humanity of the living characters. None of the ghosts in the film match up to the boy from The Devil’s Backbone, but that’s partially because del Toro is approaching them differently. Design-wise all are incredible and some may well haunt your dreams for nights to come, but as characters they never quite clear the bar. Del Toro is not truly making them characters (although a rewatch, with all the pieces of the history of Allerdale and the Sharpes in place, could make me revise this opinion) but portents - horrifying Cassandras unable to make their intentions known through their gurgling, howling apparitional mouths. The ghosts, like the boy in The Devil’s Backbone, bear the wounds that sent them to the grave, blood flowing out like water in zero gravity from gaping maws in their heads and torsos.

Those ghosts - and some other shockingly gory violence - earns Crimson Peak its R rating, but there’s sex along for the ride as well. Del Toro has never been the most sexual filmmaker, and I’ve always felt that the stumbling, nervous love between Hellboy and Liz Sherman was more suited to del Toro’s sensibilities than an actual sex scene… but I was wrong. Crimson Peak has a couple of sexual moments (one that includes Tom Hiddleston’s naked butt pumping and pumping) that captures the slightly naughty nature of Victorian lit, and especially the desire/shame complex the Victorians had (that sat side by side with their eros/thanatos issues). Wasikowska riding Hiddleston, her huge skirt covering all the action, comes across like an honest-to-god fetish moment; it’s not quite up there with the kink of classic De Palma, maybe, but it’s del Toro showing us a side of himself we have never seen before.

Crimson Peak is a sensual movie, a film that you can feel and smell, a film that explodes off the screen with almost obsessive passion. It’s not del Toro’s best film, but it’s certainly his best English-language film, and it’s the English-language film that finally bridges his two sides. There’s the auteur who chases his esoteric influences and synthesizes them into character-heavy, metaphor-laden dramas and the filmmaker who turns out quirky blockbusters that have scope and bombast even when they don’t quite connect with audiences. Crimson Peak takes the best of that blockbuster filmmaker and marries it to the auteur, and the result is a film unlike any you’ve seen in decades. Owing as much to the Hammer horror aesthetic as it does to Mario Bava, Edgar Allen Poe and Lord Byron, Crimson Peak is a singular work of art that takes all of these predecessors and turns them into something uniquely, gloriously del Toro.