Described by director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro as his first English-language film “for adults” – as opposed to movies about day-walking vampire hunters (Blade 2), cigar-chewing demons (Hellboy and sequel), or human-piloted and kaiju-crunching giant robots (Pacific Rim) – Crimson Peak does not go the implied route of its marketing and tell a straightforward ghost story. It is instead a story always revolving around characters, with ghosts that fulfill very specific and tertiary thematic functions different from what you might expect. It’s much more concerned with the people making up 19th century high society than the specter of the supernatural, and works very well for what it is.
In 1887, aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is doted on by her industrialist father and occasionally haunted by the shade of her late mother. When the dashing and sensitive English baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) propositions Mr. Cushing for an investment in a clay-mining invention, events lead to Thomas also proposing marriage to Edith. But what is really going on with Thomas and his enigmatic sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain)? And what secrets lie seeped into the walls of the Sharpes’ ancestral and dilapidated mansion, Allerdale Hall?
Before I talk about anything else, let’s address that Hall, being the visual centerpiece of the film. Allerdale Hall has got to go down as an all-timer as far as film sets go. The production design (credited to Thomas E. Sanders but of course guided by the imagination of del Toro) is astonishing. For the duration of principal photography, there was a three-plus-story gothic mansion constructed on a soundstage in Toronto, complete with a massive library, functional elevators, and uncounted nooks and crannies. Seeing the set on the silver screen is a genuine privilege, but del Toro is also engaged in the business of, you know, story, so the showcase it gets on film is only a start. To have seen the set in person, as members of the press did, must have been amazing. Anyways –
As the story unfolds, its structure resembles a cross between Jane Eyre and The Shining. Like Jane Eyre, there is the mysterious Byronic figure (Edward Rochester=Thomas Sharpe) as a figure of sexual magnetism for the young heroine, and who also hides a significant domestic secret. Like The Shining, a struggling writer finds him/herself (Jack Torrance=Edith Cushing) isolated in a vast haunted structure and may be losing the grip on sanity. But it is important to note, as alluded to earlier, that the supernatural is taking a back seat to the merely heightened human drama. Crimson Peak is not grounded, as its characters function more or less as pulpy characters in a bodice-ripper (there’s even one reveal shot exactly like a mass-market paperback romance novel cover), but it’s decidedly not a horror movie. You might say it’s derivative, but I prefer to call it deliberately emblematic of certain tropes it wishes to exploit. This extends to the casting of the lead role.
Mia Wasikowska is sometimes typecast as the prototypical 19th century heroine (Alice in Wonderland, Madame Bovary, and yes, the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre), and nowhere is that more true than here. Her casting speaks to an aim to create a story with some familiar foundations and trappings, but defined by other vital eccentricities. Edith is a bit underdeveloped, but given her role as the normalizing counterweight to the strangeness of her new “family”, that’s appropriate. Hiddleston plays a twist on his usual suave and icy persona; his Thomas may be darkly mysterious, but he’s also insecure and at times even flustered. Wearing the pants in his family is his sister Lucille, as played by the clear acting MVP of the film, Jessica Chastain. Lucille is odd, intense, and I must say, scarier than any of the ghosts featured throughout. Crimson Peak just wouldn’t be itself without the rarefied and off-putting air that Chastain radiates here.
Another key ingredient is the del Toro of it all, as Crimson Peak explicitly dwells on themes that have permeated all of his films, such as the hold the past has on the present. The ghosts in the film even have the same thematic function as the ones in del Toro’s previous Spanish-language drama The Devil’s Backbone. One Crimson Peak ghost in particular shares the exact distinctive visual hook as the most prominent ghost in that previous classic as well, providing a clear link to del Toro’s larger filmography. One criticism I harbor relates to the ghosts, and that’s the consistent use of the tired screeching musical sting in Fernando Velázquez’ score for each ghostly visitation. Given the (relatively) subtle visual application of ghosts in Crimson Peak, the traditional jump-scare sting is out of place.
Guillermo del Toro has conducted a very pulpy and evocative gothic romance, with supportive threads of frank bloodiness and a taste of the supernatural. The cast perform very well, though Chastain pretty much steals the movie. But the biggest star of Crimson Peak is its exquisite visual design. The Allerdale Hall set is to die for, and the 19th Century period trappings are all elegantly present and correct. While not the most scintillating experience, the film is a fun ride for those who go along with its full-blooded melodrama. A weak 8/10.