1 hour 59 minutes
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain
The year is 1901. In the prosperous city of Buffalo, New York, young Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) dreams of becoming a writer. But being a young woman of letters in this era is difficult at best, and a local editor brushes Edith’s ghost story away with little more than a compliment for her handwriting and a comment that women should write love stories, not ghost stories. While Edith insists that the ghost is a metaphor for the past, her own history has taught her that ghosts are indeed real. Her own mother’s spirit visited Edith the night after her funeral, after all. Undaunted, Edith sets about reworking her story while her beloved father meets with a mysterious and handsome Englishman, Thomas Sharpe (Hiddlestone) and his sister Lucille (Chastain) who seek investors to help them build a machine to mine the red clay beneath their family’s estate, Allerdale Hall in the lonely English moors. It’s not long before Thomas and Edith meet and he sweeps her off her feet, much to Edith’s father’s disapproval.
But Edith will not be stopped, and when tragedy strikes she finds comfort in Thomas’s arms. They quickly marry and Thomas returns home with Edith in tow and grand plans for his machine and their ramshackle mansion. Though she is at first dazzled by the house’s decrepit beauty, Edith soon discovers that everything is not as it seems. Plagued by a strange illness, more hauntings, and a warning out of time, Edith must unravel the mystery of Allerdale Hall before the dark forces in the house claim her life.
Though it was marketed as a horror film akin to those of the Paranormal Activity and Friday the 13th sequels that also premiered in 2015, Crimson Peak owes more to the tradition of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century Gothic novels than it does to Twenty-First-century horror films. It contains references to Jane Eyre and the works of Anne Radcliffe, as well as summoning the dark figure of Mrs. Danvers from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. A figure from director Guillermo del Toro’s own spectral past makes an appearance, as well. These references come together to give the characters a foundation from which they can leap to life as complicated figures in their own right.
One of the critiques flung at Gothic tales is that the plots are relatively simple. Crimson Peak is no different and follows a basic formula: a young woman is swept off her feet by a handsome stranger who whisks her away. Upon arriving in her new home far away, the heroine discovers a house full of deadly secrets. With a story like this, then, it falls onto the characters to maintain the audience’s interest. Complicated characters make a simple plot successful, and Crimson Peak‘s characters have layer upon layer. Edith might claim at the beginning that she doesn’t want a love story, but it turns out that she really does, and in finding love she also stumbles into a ghost-filled tale of dark passions in a house that is as alive as its occupants. Thomas wants to be a successful man and see his family’s home restored to its former glory, but he is held back by forces he can not– and does not want to– control. Lucille seems like a proper English lady, but beneath her straight-laced facade lies someone who seeks to control everything around her at any cost. The three actors who portray these characters are at the top of their game, keeping their performances just restrained enough to keep the story from falling into a melodramatic muddle without forgetting that Crimson Peak‘s Gothic roots require more than a little drama.
The production design and costuming aid in the storytelling, as well. Del Toro’s color choices set the story’s mood, whether it is the beautiful golds and greens of prosperous Buffalo, New York, the dark cyans, blues, and vivid reds of Allerdale Hall, or the ghostly hues of the climactic scene, the rich palette provides an unmistakable sense of place and atmosphere. Every hue is specifically chosen for its ability to add to the story. In Allerdale Hall, for example, Thomas and Lucille almost blend into the house thanks to their blue and black wardrobes, while Edith steps into the world like a contrasting jewel decked in golden yellows and whites. The musical score, too, helps to tell the story, adding intense romanticism when required, or putting the viewer on edge when eerie or dangerous things are happening on screen.
Though it came and went without making much of a splash– due in large part to Hollywood’s advertising schemes not knowing what to do with films that fall outside typical genre norms– Crimson Peak is a gorgeous film that is well worth a second look.