Warning: beware of Crimson Peak… spoilers.
When I saw the first trailer for Crimson Peak, you might say my interest was immediately… “peaked” (I’m so sorry.) It was being marketed as a horror film, released during Halloween season, but I could see from the trailer that that was merely the result of advertisers not knowing how to sell a movie that was clearly deeply inspired by the literary tradition of gothic romance (a fact that director Guillermo del Toro continuously asserts whenever talking about Crimson Peak on Twitter) As our heroine Edith (Mia Wasikowska) states in the film itself, this is not a ghost story, it’s a story with a ghost in it.
That said, the ghosts are beautiful, terrifying, and effective. They are all real actors in full makeup, enhanced by CG, which lends them an extra element of unsettling physicality. Enshrouded in shifting mists and yet unmistakably there, all of the scenes where Edith encounters or senses a ghost are by no means throwaway moments. So while Crimson Peak may not scare you out of your wits, you won’t be entirely disappointed by its creep-factor. And the ghosts are not the only stunning visuals in this delectable del Toro romp, the cinematography, costumes, and art direction are all superb. I saw the film in IMAX, and the striking colors and lush set design really shone on that larger-than-life screen.
But it is so much more than the ghosts that make Crimson Peak creepy. The characters and the setting all practically ooze with foreboding and tension. Or literally ooze, in the case of the Sharpe family home, Allerdale Hall. The crumbling castle that Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) brings his new bride Edith to is slowly sinking into the blood-red earth, and the impossibly bright clay continuously seeps into the walls and through the floorboards. The house is enormous and lavishly decorated but in an obvious state of disrepair, the perfect metaphor for the mysterious and deteriorating relationship of the Sharpe siblings Thomas and Lucille (Jessica Chastain).
Chastain gives a wonderful performance as the unhinged elder Sharpe. Working with her brother Thomas to save their childhood home and get his clay-mining machine off the ground, Lucille is possessive and disdainful. She is suspicious of Edith and her connection to Thomas, constantly wondering if the young woman has replaced her in her brother’s heart. Her villainous reveal in the film’s climax is an unsettling delight, with all the creepiness of Allerdale Hall and the Sharpe family finally boiling over into a violent and emotional explosion. Lucille is the best kind of bad girl: assertive, determined, and self-aware. Her frank confession to Edith about accepting her own monstrousness is equal parts pitiful and chilling. In the end, Lucille is a tragic character, but that only enhances how scary she can be.
Finally, Edith is a smart, capable writer whose only blind spot seems to be Thomas and his ominous home. Despite claiming that she has no interest in romance and looks down upon the nobility (she name-drops Mary Shelley, the mother of contemporary science fiction, as a woman she aspires to be like), Edith’s eyes turn into hearts as soon as baronet Thomas Sharpe walks through her door. She is untrusting of Lucille, but only because she seems to disapprove of her hasty marriage to Thomas and not because she is clearly poisoning her from the moment she enters Allerdale Hall. However, while such a naive characterization would likely bother me in another film, in Crimson Peak it works. And most importantly, Edith’s naïveté does not stop her from being her own hero in the end.
The film begins and ends with the cover of a book –another nod to the literary tradition it draws so much inspiration from– and with Edith’s narration of the story that unfolds. “Ghosts are real,” she states clearly, but when the film ends and we realize that Edith herself is the author of the story we’ve just been told, what is real and what isn’t is momentarily less certain. Is the sordid tale of Lucille and Thomas Sharpe, their sins and their decaying legacy, merely the result of Edith’s skill as a writer or did it all really happen, ghosts and all? No matter what the answer, Crimson Peak is still a satisfyingly weird and wild ride.