Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) lives in Buffalo New York, and she knows that ghosts are real. Her mother died when she was a child, and shortly after, Edith was visited by a spirit that offered her a cryptic warning: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” Fast forward ten years, and Edith is a gorgeous young woman who would much rather write ghost stories than settle down with a husband.
One day, Edith’s father is visited by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), an English aristocrat seeking capital for a mining machine that he has designed. Cushing (Beaver) doesn’t care for Sharpe and rejects his proposal. Afterwards, Sharpe begins pursuing a romantic relationship with Edith. Both Edith’s father and her friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) disapprove of the relationship, and Cushing soon hires an investigator, who digs up some rather salacious dirt on Sharpe and his sister, Lucille (Chastain).
Cushing then blackmails the Sharpes into leaving New York; they agree to do so, but before they can depart, Cushing is brutally murdered. Orphaned and alone, Edith falls farther in love with and eventually marries Sharpe. She then travels with him back to England to live with him and Lucille.
Terrifying and strangely beautiful, Sharpe’s home is an image of darkness, grandeur, and decay. The labyrinthine mansion is cold, dimly lit, and falling apart. Leaves drift in through holes in the ceiling, and moths fill entire rooms. Blood red clay oozes down the walls as the house itself slowly sinks into the mire beneath it. And all the while, ghosts await Edith at every turn.
Directed by the imaginative Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak is a visually stunning Gothic romance that is neither subtle nor restrained. Like so many of the Gothic works that may have inspired it, the film verges into the realms of the ridiculous and is remarkably self-indulgent. And yet, for all of its narrative missteps, Crimson Peak remains an entertaining and incredibly stylish exercise in excess. With a better script, it could have been spectacular; as it stands, it’s still a lot of fun (though not particularly scary).
The most noticeable—and indeed, the most impressive—thing about Crimson Peak is the way that it looks. Its sets are meticulously designed, and hardly a visual detail is overlooked (or edited out) in the entire film. This is especially true for the second portion of the film, which is set in England, but it holds for most of the first half as well. At the same time, many of the most beautiful scenes are presented primarily in black, red, teal, and yellow, and such strong colors underscore the film’s place in the realm of fantasy.
Crimson Peak consistently trades style for substance, but that is not always a bad thing. Locating the Sharpe’s decomposing mansion on a sea of bright red clay doesn’t make the story stronger, but it does allow del Toro to give viewers the film’s most incredible shot, which depicts what appears to be a field of blood-soaked snow. The film’s focus on surface matters does cause some problems, but Crimson Peak‘s visuals are also strong enough to make the film worth watching.
Though some of Crimson Peak‘s visuals might feel overwrought, they are still undeniably captivating; they are also crucial to its success as a Gothic work. As I mentioned in my post on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I once spent a few months reading Gothic literature. As ridiculous as many of the novels were, I eventually grew to appreciate many of the genres quirks and conventions. One of the most important among these is the juxtaposition of the horrifying with the alluring (or of the monstrous with sexual desire). In Crimson Peak, even the most horrific images are beautiful in their own strange way. When they think about they are looking at, viewers might want to turn their heads, but del Toro makes sure that their eyes won’t let them.
This is somewhat tangential, but it’s also worth mentioning the way that Crimson Peak uses its two lead women to explore the Gothic’s tendency to join that which seems disparate. Just as some of the images in the film are beautiful and haunting all at once, so too are its women as capable of being monsters as they are angels.
Unlike its gorgeous and unsettling visuals, Crimson Peak’s performances don’t do much to separate it from other films. That said, they aren’t bad either. Wasikowska certainly looks the part, and she pulls off Edith’s particular combination of fragility and strength quite well. As a more sympathetic version of the Byronic man, Hiddleston is also fine. Still, it is Jessica Chastain who is by far the most compelling figure in the film. Lucille is as cold as ice and is more threatening than her brother could ever hope to be. Crimson Peak won’t earn Chastain any awards, and it isn’t the best showcase of her incredible talent, but it will make her ability visible to a wider audience, and her presence makes the film more interesting than it might have been otherwise.
Nearly all of Crimson Peak‘s problems are in its script. Many moments in the film feel rushed (especially near the beginning), and by not allowing certain moments to breathe, del Toro prevents both his characters and the relationships between them from developing into something worthwhile.
While pacing is an issue in the film, predictability is much larger one. As creative as del Toro clearly is, almost none of that creativity finds its ways into Crimson Peak‘s story. At the same time, the over-the-top quality that characterizes the film’s visuals seeps into the narrative layers of the film, and the result is a script that is wholly lacking in subtlety. Consequently, all but the most unobservant viewers will anticipate almost every aspect of the film’s story a good hour before it reaches its conclusion.
The film’s inclusion of Dr. Alan McMichael’s storyline is also a mistake. I objectively understand how del Toro may have justified such a character, but that doesn’t change the fact that he adds nothing of value to the film. In fact, the character is so hollow, that one wonders whether del Toro just wanted to work with Charlie Hunnam again. Pulling viewers away from Crimson Peak to remind them that the doctor exists is distracting. It also removes much of the potential suspense from the film by letting viewers know that someone will try to rescue Edith long before she herself realizes that Crimson Peak is not safe.
Another thing about Crimson Peak that might bother some viewers is the fact that it’s simply not scary. It’s not really a horror film; it’s a tribute to the Gothic. It’s a gruesome fairy tale (think Blue Beard, but with a twist), and it’s a dark romance. Crimson Peak may have been frightening as a 19th Century novel, but as a 21st Century film, it isn’t terrifying in the slightest, which is fine. After all, whether or not a movie fits a particular genre doesn’t determine if it’s any good. That said, problems do arise when people walk into a film with certain expectations. At the end of the day, it’s inevitable that some will dislike Crimson Peak, because they went into it hoping for horror (thanks for nothing, TV spot trailers), but as Edith says of her own manuscript, Crimson Peak isn’t a ghost story—it just happens to have some ghosts in it.
Crimson Peak is a deeply flawed work. It does not offer a great deal in terms of substance, and it is sure to divide and disappoint some viewers. And yet, there is something about the film that prevents me from damning it outright. As much as I want to be frustrated with del Toro, I can’t help but like this film. It provides a much more memorable viewing experience than Pacific Rim, and there is something daring about it that is hard to overlook. Crimson Peak‘s problems might be obvious, but its flashes of brilliance are just as noticeable.
Until Next Time
Thanks so much for stopping by! If you have any thoughts on Crimson Peak, or if you have any questions about my review, feel free to leave a comment below or to connect with me on Twitter.
This post was more delayed than I would have liked. I’m currently in grad-app hell, so I may be a little slow to post for the next few months. That said, I do plan to see Steve Jobs and to watch Beasts of No Nation within the next week or so, so I’m sure to have more to say here soon enough.