Early into Crimson Peak, young writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) attempts to pitch her novel to an obnoxious publicist (The Strain’s Jonathan Hyde in a cameo). He dismisses it arrogantly as a ghost story to which she replies ‘No, it’s a story with ghosts’. This description is Guillermo Del Toro’s way of letting the audience know that Crimson Peak is not a traditional horror film. Instead it has more in common with a gothic romance, although one which happens to feature spectral forces emerging from dark corridors and locked rooms. Edith, after the death of her father (a terrific Jim Beaver), marries the charming and seductive Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and finds herself swept away to his remote mansion in the English hills. Also living there is Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Thomas’ sister and protector who appears to harbour dark secrets regarding her family. Able to communicate with the dead, Edith tries to decipher the mystery behind the ghostly visions that haunt her new home.
The film is embedded with features of both gothic literature and gothic horror cinema. It tips it’s hat to the original gothic horror Nosferatu – through its use of old-fashioned camera tricks such as wipes (as transitions from scene to scene), along with the moment in which the shadows of Edith’s dead mother’s long fingers creep against the walls of her bedroom. The plot, like most traditional gothic tales, not only revolves around the duality and multiplicity of certain characters, but also, the revelations of past crimes which are often, as scholar Jonathan Risner points out, inextricably linked with a certain place, predominately lurid and secluded mansions. Del Toro’s stylish and lavish direction enforces the visual codes of the gothic e.g. gorgeous, vast expansive shots of the titular old castle and also it’s inner labyrinthine architecture. The building, in which the majority of the film’s second half takes place, is at times symbolic of the psychology of the character’s motives. The castle contains hidden chambers, subterranean vaults and secret passages which are metaphors for the dark, mysterious desires of characters. As these secret rooms and chambers are uncovered, the mystery of the plot begins to unravel.
The fact that Crimson Peak is such an unabashed homage to gothic literature in terms of plot means that the story is already overly familiar and therefore quite predictable in certain places (if you do not see the twists coming you are really not trying). However, Del Toro manages to keep the film compelling. He is aware that the reason this tale is told so often is because it is a good tale. With this in mind he allows the plot to play out as it should and instead focuses more on visuals and setting. Like his previous work there is an emphasis on both bright amber and bold dark red colours. The castle lit by candlelight is bathed in a gorgeous glow and the red clay, in which the ground is situated on, as it melds with snow is one of the most jaw-droppingly exquisite images of the year.
Although the film doesn’t have many truly terrifying set pieces, Crimson Peak deserves strong praise for its presentation of its ghouls. Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in Hellboy, The Fawn in Pan’s Labyrinth) is incredible again in his motion-capture roles (he plays both male and female spirits). Although the visuals are CGI, Jones lends a certain physicality to the ghosts’ movement. There is an element of uncanny terror as Jones appears to, at times, walk like a human and then later, crawl like a demon. These spectral forces are depicted as bright red (due to the clay) which only serves to heighten the horror of their otherworldly and unfamiliar appearance.
The performances are universally excellent. Wasikowska manages to keep her character compelling, which is a monumental feat when Hiddleston and Chastain’s characters are so much more dark, brooding and interesting. Hiddleston embodies his character with both a charm, which makes you understand why Edith would be attracted to him rather than Charlie Hunnam’s kind doctor character, but also at times a sense of desperation – as if he is man who is far too in over his head and is forced to live with his consequences. Chastain slightly overplays her character’s mental state (one of the elements which makes the film predictable), however, she truly shines in the excellent final act in which she becomes vicious and almost feral. Without spoilers, the bloody and violent last act of the film is thrilling and worth the price of admission alone.
Predictable, but nevertheless bold and beautiful. Crimson Peak is another excellent work by a world-class director.