Directed by Guillermo Del Toro
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Based on filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro’s back catalogue, not to mention his well documented love of the macabre and the film’s own marketing strategy, you might be going into Crimson Peak expecting a horror movie – and you’d be half right.
The Mexican genre specialist’s latest offering does have a lot of horror in its DNA, but it draws most of its matter from a genre that parallels and overlaps horror: Crimson Peak is Gothic potboiler in the literary sense, all repressed desires, dark secrets, and desperate passions. And, yes, a ghost or two, but as we’re plainly told in the first few minutes, this is a story with ghosts, not a ghost story, and that’s fine a but important distinction.
Bookish, independent-minded Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, who really is our go-to lead for this sort of thing) meets the charming English Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) when he comes to her father (the stalwart Jim Beaver) to petition him to invest in his family’s clay mining operation. Sharpe begins to romance Edith but her father disapproves for a variety of fairly concrete reasons, not the least of which is that Sharpe is dead broke and apparently already married. One quick and brutal murder gets dad out of the way, though, and the freshly married Edith and Thomas depart the former’s New England home for the latter’s family seat of Allerdale Hall in England, colloquially known as Crimson Peak because of the red clay earth it sits on. That’s a name that has some significance for Edith, as the skeletal ghost of her mother has twice appeared to her, warning her to beware such a place. Turns out it’s good advice.
Crimson Peak is a sumptuous film, a real feast for the eyes. Del Toro lets his more baroque sensibilities have full reign here; the titular manse is a huge, groaning, decaying wreck, a past glory slowly but inexorably falling to entropy and rot. It’s literally sinking into the red clay it sits on, its main hall littered with dead leaves spilled through the holed roof, it’s corridors and parlors shrouded in darkness. Without going into Senior English semiotics here, all this of course reflects the corruption of the presiding Sharpe family, comprising not only Sir Thomas but his elder sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), a prickly, serpentine figure who is extremely protective and possessive of both her brother and their home. Could there be something untoward going on there, some kind of dark and terrible family secret?
Well, yes, that’s par for the course. Del Toro throws every hoary old Gothic trope into the mix and he does it with clear relish; you’re much better off letting his carefully concocted, moody epic wash over you like the soporific wave of an opium hit. Crimson Peak‘s pleasures are more sensual than narrative, really; it’s a languorous, stately procession, not a breakneck thriller, and it’ll be interesting to see how audiences react to that – or, more precisely, what kind of audience it finds. It’s not that the film is particularly highbrow, but it’s of a type of lowbrow that we don’t see too often these days. Still, if you know your Poe and retain a hankering for Hammer, this should be just the thing.