Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Matthew Robbins & Guillermo del Toro
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen; Editing: Bernat Vilaplana
Production Design: Thomas E. Sanders; Set Decoration: Jeffrey A. Melvin & Shane Vieau; Costumes: Kate Hawley; Score: Fernando Velázquez
Stars: Mia Wasikowska (Edith Cushing), Tom Hiddleston (Sir Thomas Sharpe), Jessica Chastain (Lady Lucille Sharpe), Charlie Hunnam (Dr. Alan McMichael), Jim Beaver (Carter Cushing), Burn Gorman (Mr. Holly), Javier Botet (Ghosts of Pamela, Enola & Margaret), Doug Jones (Ghosts of Edith’s Mother, The Dowager Lady Sharpe)
Well-cast, sumptuous reimagining of the classic ghost story, Crimson Peak is classy entertainment, so we can forgive it the many delirious, unapologetic excesses into Gothic melodrama. There’s something decidedly refreshing about a film that accepts itself for what it is, as this one does, rather than striving to convince us it’s anything grander than that. Embracing the conventions of the genre wholeheartedly, the director Guillermo del Toro revels in his own richly absurd, deliciously overripe camp scares. He has no qualms about crafting a movie that’s a throwback to the most Victorian of haunted house humbugs.
Del Toro is a past master of fantasy and sci-fi, his preferred areas of expertise. And he has quite a few precursors for this type of horror tale on his resume, notably the critically admired The Devil’s Backbone, which was followed by the pseudo-sequel Pan’s Labyrinth, as lush a period fantasy as Crimson Peak and if not a horror film per se, with its menagerie of nightmarish fairy tale creatures, close enough. The director returns us to the same decaying mansion of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, which he wrote and produced, here built over a host of percolating horrors bubbling up from an underground lair even more elaborate. What’s strange is that Crimson Peak, apart from its turn-of-the-century England setting, feels to have less in common with these earlier antecedents than it does the del Toro produced Mama, which was actually directed by protégé Andrés Muschietti. Jessica Chastain, who starred in the earlier film, makes a triumphant return to the fold, trailed by all her old familiars, dry rot and death’s head moths and Javier Botet in the form of a spectral wraith.
Having played Mama once before, Botet expands on his earlier repertoire by tripling the effect, impersonating most all of the apparitions we see wisping about, sharing additional honors this time with Doug Jones. Botet seems to be making a whole new career out of playing female shades, the same way Andy Serkis has invented his own singular style of acting through the art of motion capture. Unfortunately, these special FX ghosts, which should constitute the movie’s pièce de résistance, look unspeakably phony, like cheap stock shocks left over from Mama. They just don’t jibe with the classiness of the rest of the picture, the effectively sustained, moody atmospherics. At times, the way they pop up and twirl about makes one feel as if we were on Disney’s Haunted Mansion theme park ride.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith, an aspiring writer orphaned in 1880’s New York who is courted and whisked away to England by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), following the mysterious death of her father (Jim Beaver) who was opposed to the union. Taking up residence in her husband’s dilapidated ancestral estate of Allerdale Hall, built atop a red clay mine, Edith finds herself in conflict with her resentful new sister-in-law Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and haunted by the specters that inhabit the old ruin and seem to be trying to communicate with her. As Edith learns more about the true intentions of Sir Thomas and his family, she begins to fear for her life. The actress found herself in similar, unenviable straits, at the mercy of a stalker in the family in the creepy sleeper Stoker. With her streaming hair and a face modeled for period parts like Alice in Wonderland and Lawless, Wasikowska is like an Impressionist painting by Raphael come to life.
Blessed with an appearance from another time, the actress looks great in period costume, descending in the flickering, overhead light of a rickety old elevator, her gleaming nightgown imparting a spectral air. She’s a latter day Joan Fontaine, as mesmerized as Fontaine’s heroines were in movies like Rebecca and Suspicion by the stormy, brooding leading men they married despite knowing next to nothing about their mysterious pasts. That’s Tom Hiddleston in this case as Sir Thomas, with his intense Rochester eyes. Like Rebecca, Crimson Peak is Jane Eyre with a twist. Instead of a mad wife locked away in the attic we get all the ghosts of girlfriends past ticking through proceedings like the dancing shadows cast by some illuminated lantern. Her present ladyship even gets mail addressed to the first Mrs. de Winter.
Edith is a repressed egg head like Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, too smart for own good, the future spinster no one thinks has any prospect of snagging a man until she’s swept off her feet in true Gothic romance fashion. So her father finds it an interesting development when his confirmed little wallflower unexpectedly shows up at the ball after originally eschewing the occasion. The hero Edith describes in the novel she’s writing has a darkness in him that appeals to her new husband. Possessing the same black soul, he responds in kind to a kindred spirit. Saying she doesn’t know if this hero she created will survive until the end Edith explains that characters grow and change and evolve independently, in ways contrary to what the author originally intended. Speaking of her novel, she may as well be describing Hiddleston’s own Sir Thomas, who sees so much of himself in her written words. Edith’s candor is intended to plant the subliminal doubt that the Thomas character will himself manage to weather proceedings without adapting in some ways as well. Trying to reopen the Sharpe family mines using a newfangled earth mover he’s attempting to patent, it’s noted that Sir Thomas’ hands, the same hands Edith’s father forbade from taking his daughter in matrimony because they were too soft before, proving he’d never done a hard days’ work in his life, are becoming roughened through manual labor. The manly blistering and sore callouses are used as proof of the regeneration of this wealthy wastrel. After being compelled all these years to raise capital by predacious means, marrying for money and disposing of his brides for their dowry, Sir Thomas can now repent of his actions since his invention finally works, making it possible for him to support himself without recourse to murder. Turning to the light, he’ll cry tears of blood in the shadow of death, like a weeping statue of Christ suffering the pains of stigmata, and even his wispy phantasm looks made of the same alabaster as a church icon, trailed by a smoky vaporous mist suggestive of smoldering cinders or scorched brimstone.
Much as Fontaine’s father in Suspicion couldn’t bring himself to entirely trust Cary Grant, Edith’s own can see straight through Sir Thomas’ clever ruse. Taking an instant dislike to the soft living baronet because he hasn’t worked for the fortune he’s amassed, if he were fully aware of how this Bluebeard has managed to acquire the steady stream of cash it takes to fund his digging operations, he’d be beyond appalled. It’s no coincidence then that Edith will employ the gold nib pen her farseeing father gave her like a dagger, proving the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Passive Edith has been empowered through her writing with the ultimate means of defending herself from the Sharpes. Because of this, she can aggressively ward off the fortune hunting predators who want to suck her dry. These fallen aristocrats are figurative bloodsuckers, capitalist vampires whose business is based on bloodlettings. Marrying and murdering for money has become their means of making their way in the world, leaving them vultures surviving on scraps, feeding off the bones of their victims like carrion. Rationalizing their trade in her own mind, Lucille claims they’re not hocking the family heirlooms, a sort of red scarab mood ring engraved with their aristocratic crest, but instead exchanging it in order to make an investment in Edith. Purchasing her, more or less, to feather a future nest for themselves when they were on their last legs, they’re banking on the fortune of this helpless fawn. There seems no special reason Lord and Lady Sharpe need have changed nationalities, uprooting this story from American shores. They’ve been made Old English only so these corrupt fortune hunters could be painted as embodying decadent, European decay in true Henry James fashion. The predatory pair is akin to the mercenary characters in such novels as James’ The Portrait of a Lady, The Europeans, Washington Square or The Wings of the Dove. There’s repeated implications that consorting with these worldly wise English sophisticates is meant to have broadened Edith’s horizons and deepened her ink blotter. But while this aspiring writer who compares herself to the author of Frankenstein was told she can’t write convincing ghost stories because she’s never known such violent emotions firsthand, it’s impossible to ascertain how far this trauma has helped shape her talent. Still Edith’s art remains her primary concern, so when the wicked sister-in-law burns the irreplaceable, one of a kind copy of the book she’s been penning, like the spiteful young Amy of Little Women, it’s the scene in the film which horrifies us most, for all the spooks and specters floating about. With literary references to the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen and Mary Shelley linking Crimson Peak to the grand traditions of high Gothic romance, it justifies the director’s baroque, outrageously ornate approach, the way it did in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Aspiring author Edith has been cast in the guise of a studious typist similar to Mina Harker in the Stoker classic and like her, Edith too finds herself bewitched by a blood sucking capitalist aristocrat intent on draining her finances to nourish himself. The movie is dripping in crimson shades from the title on down.
With bottles full of Georgia clay and hands dripping with gore, red is used as a reoccurring motif. When Sharpe’s machine dredges up clay from the earth it stains the surrounding snow, the gutters of the cellar sewer running deep with the backwash. The enormous basement cauldrons, which recall the boarded off ash pit from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, look to be filled with blood themselves as the clay seeps in, churned up in runoff resembling tomato soup or paint swirl. Even the stone walls of this cellar are slicked with blood, like the membranous bowels of hell. Edith’s caretakers are systematically poisoning her tea, as Hitchcock did Ingrid Bergman’s in Notorious, and when she awakens in the night, she’s coughing up her lungs like a tubercular patient, staining the immaculate silver sheets with yet more of the red stuff.
Apart from its concentration on the title color, Crimson Peak links itself to other vampire films as well. The bird’s-eye view of the cross bedecked coffin bearing Edith’s mother to rest is meant to evoke Nosferatu, as is the gnarled, shadowy form of her wraith when it makes its first appearance. Like the one of her mother, ghosts will prove Edith’s guardian angels here, sent from on high to watch over her and keep her safe. Rather than threatening presences, they invariably exist to perform the kind service of helping out the heroine, whose receptive second sight opens her to their warnings against forsaking her head to follow her heart, like a silly woman.
This movie, set during the burgeoning technological revolution at the turn-of-the-century is graced with antique cinematic devices, such as iris-ins and -outs, to impart a period ambiance. With the inroads made by indoor plumbing and old Victrolas, the Age of Enlightenment clashes with the superstition of times past in this film, as it did in The Woman in Black. Crimson Peak takes much delight in the juxtaposition of old and new, horse and buggy still sharing the road with horseless carriages, and our heroine anachronistically conceived as a modern woman, though she’ll eventually fall back into the corsets of a Gothic damsel in distress.
The violence, such as when her father’s head is bashed in, Lizzie Borden fashion, strikes one as wrenchingly modern as well. It seems more suited to the American milieu of gangsters and 20th century crime. It’s unlikely however that these English interlopers, with such a vested interested in Edith’s financial future, would escape suspicion. Such contrivances must simply be accepted as part of the woodwork of high melodrama. And since anyone who appreciates a good Gothic can see it all coming anyway, we’re left to revel in the sumptuous beauty of the lush visuals instead, and there are far less pleasurable ways of killing a few hours.
The foreboding estate of the title exists in limbo, situated in the middle of nowhere, like that mansion in the mudflat marshes of The Woman in Black or Reata rising tall from the flat, arid Texas plains in Giant. Lost on the moors, buried in the heather, it’s more haunted than Wuthering Heights. Yet in spite of all the grisly detailing, Crimson Peak is a thing of beauty to look at. One could nearly drown in the sumptuous visual designs of Thomas E. Sanders and set decorators Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau, which are busy and cluttered in a way that seem suited to the overstuffed Victorian atmosphere. It’s all gold silks and brocades, frilled ruffled shawls and big balloon sleeves. In its myriad shades and textiles, the movie’s a fabric designer’s dream, same as the spires and moldings serve as a production designer’s paradise.
This is a great set, a glorious, rambling old pile of stones, with leaves and later snowflakes falling straight through the open rafters where ceiling beams have gone missing. The groaning, quaking plumbing spitting out rust red water, bloody clay oozing from floorboards built atop the mines below, a gathering swarm of insects same as we saw amassing in Mama and what might be Lizzie Borden’s own hatchet squirreled away in the cellar, all serve to give this home additional character. The more the house sinks into the shifting sands on which it was constructed, the worse the settling noises get. This house is like a living, sentient entity in its death throes. As we’re told, when the east wind picks up the chimney forms a vacuum and the house ‘breathes.’ We lose count of how many rooms it contains since the corridors look as if they go on forever, receding off into infinite darkness. Full of furnaces and incinerators, it’s a murder castle fit for Bluebeard’s eighth wife.
To rub Edith’s fashionably forward sensibility in further, her former suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) also shows a scientific bent, his empirical mind denoted by possession of a book by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of that most pragmatic of rationalists, Sherlock Holmes. Alan has been conceived as a surgeon who dabbles in the new sciences of forensic autopsies and fingerprinting, experimenting with cutting edge techniques. Even after Edith has married another, he remains resolutely on the case, pursuing her not so much out of love but to silence his inquiring mind. Bringing his medical background into play, Alan is even kind enough to show Sir Thomas where to stab him, when obliged to follow his crazed sister’s commands, because he knows just the spot a wound won’t be fatal, avoiding any major arteries. Alan’s so far thinking, he even attempts to demonstrate how ghost pictures are faked, though ironically his hero Conan Doyle himself believed wholeheartedly in such supernatural signs his entire life. It’s Alan’s personal hypothesis that serves as thematic key to the mystery when he speculates that some houses can retain the residual imprint of previous owners, their spirits subsisting on a wave length of the spectrum only perceptible to those not color blind to it. Pointing out that there are people who can’t see red or green hues, he notes that things only become visible when it’s time for them to be seen, just as Edith will eventually see the family she married into for what they really are.
The incest in Crimson Peak is depicted as an insular, desiccating, self-destructive love that ‘burns you and maims you and twists you inside out… monstrous love.’ Such shamefully clandestine, carnal passions are equated with living death here. Even Edith and Thomas begin making love surrounded by the disembodied heads of baby dolls, before being rudely interrupted. The squalid, decomposing manor of Crimson Peak, its crumbling walls cracking and falling apart, has come to encapsulate the siblings’ disintegrating relationship. Enclosed as they are within its four walls, this ancestral estate has grown into the expressionistic outcropping of their entangling incestuous relationship itself, the torturous passion they can’t escape. Keeping their love a secret all these years, they seem more or less self-entombed already, haunting the mansion in life as they will in death. The ghosts here are used figuratively, as metaphor for these people so troubled by their tragic yesteryears. Telling Sir Thomas he’s always living in the past like a ghost, the very modern Edith says he won’t find her there, embodying as she does the endless possibilities for a tomorrow, the sort he first saw in the unbounded American horizon. Her New World promises to save him from the decay and death that has him mired down in the Old. With everything suddenly coming up roses for Sir Thomas, he tells his possessive sister, who would rather see him dead than with another, that they can be freed by letting go of the past, all the years spent holding up Allerdale Hall. But despite the last minute attempt to severe the umbilical cord, these spiritual twins remain tied together in death as they were in life. Lucille even sports a complementary wound on her own cheek, if on the opposite side as Sir Thomas’.
The scarlet dress Lucille swathes herself in as she violently plays piano at the ball serves to exude the inner passions and insane, incestuous jealousy her coldly calculating exterior conceals. Later the beading on her dress is made to resemble the talons of a vulture with peacock coordinated fringe. It’s her forbidding tribal war mask, strung with a necklace of bear claws. Once returned to the ancestral estate, she’ll play the Mrs. Danvers part, slinking around in the shadows, watching, waiting, making Edith feel as if her sister-in-law were the true mistress of the house. The resentful, keyhole spying Lucille is always hovering in the background, creeping about in her spidery fashion like something of a wraith herself. Sharp as a knife’s edge, Lucille is the more collected of the siblings, which is why Edith’s father hands her the check to pay them off on the stipulation they stay away from his daughter, rather than her brother, which would have been the customary thing to do in a monetary transaction of the time. Lucille has a masculine mind, which is why she’s ultimately seen dressed in men’s attire in the flashback. Intellectually the two women seem evenly matched, so their competition for who should be mistress of the house recalls the animosity between Liz Taylor and Mercedes McCambridge in Giant. The two even struggle for possession of those keys to the kingdom, each jostling to become their keeper. As is, Edith is a virtual prisoner, needing permission to enter restricted areas of the mansion, as well as permission to exit, so that everyone is kept apprised of her comings and goings. Not trusting her brother alone with her, Lucille doesn’t want Edith out of her sight, and keeps the glowering portrait of their disapproving mother in its judgmental position of vantage, observing everything they do. Like the incestuous siblings themselves, Edith too becomes trapped within the house, bounded by the four walls as much as the ghosts that inhabit it.
Having protected her younger brother from their abusive mother’s cane, placing herself in harm’s way in his stead, Lucille believes she has a stake in him. But after coming into a little bit of money of his own, the ingrate no longer needs her to help him support himself. Finding someone younger and now telling his sister she suffocates him, he intends to discard Lucille to pursue a new life. Having become like one of his previous wives herself, Lucille is now to be tossed aside as they were once they’d served their purpose. Actress Jessica Chastain holds herself with such an absolute sense of neurotic stillness and body control in this part that the unexpected instances when she lets herself rage, erupting into fits of irrational violence, are made to seem all the more hair-raising for welling up out of seemingly nowhere as they do. Her placid façade begins to crack when she comes to find the one night Sir Thomas escaped her vigilant attempts to keep him in her sights, he slipped into town and consummated his marriage. Despite the cutting words she uses to coerce Edith to sign her last will and testament, convincing her death would be kinder, it’s actually Lucille who wants to die, since she no longer has anything to live for without Sir Thomas.
Lucille notes in regard to Edith that beautiful things are fragile, drawing a comparison that at home they only have black moths that feed on butterflies and thrive on darkness. Butterflies like Edith, on the other hand, thrive on sunlight and die when it deserts them. When she balks at such savagery, Lucille assures her it’s the natural order of things, priming the prey for what’s to come. Lucille’s the black hearted moth to Edith’s defenseless butterfly, parasitically feeding off her wealth same as the Sharpes have all Sir Thomas’ wives. And the actress playing her is the perfect counter to Mia Wasikowska’s fluffy frilliness, so this tale of snow and blood ends up a showdown between blond and brunet, sacred and profane love, much as Chastain’s earlier Mama did. But for such an old fashioned galloping tintype set on the cusp of modern times, these visual dynamics are a tad antiquated in themselves. The idea that a fresh blond beauty need save the hero from the clutches of the dark fallen woman went out with Gothic romance itself.
Still, Crimson Peak again begs the question if it’s humanly possible for the incomparable Jessica Chastain to give a bad performance. She’s the caliber of actress people believe Meryl Streep used to be. Even when appearing in inferior material like this, Chastain still manages to draw new facets out of herself. I never before noticed the scar on her lip, for instance. Even corseted by the iron constraints of such a patently artificial genre as haunted Gothic, Chastain’s a thorough craftsman. She nearly succeeds in creating a fully dimensional character out of what she’s been given, which isn’t exactly what one wants from a movie such as this, because it means we would have to actually take it seriously on some level, and care. Happily the actress instead takes her role so full-bloodedly over the top she’s screamingly fun. As in Mama, she’s gone raven haired again, but given the movie’s peculiar preoccupation with the color of crimson, it’s nearly enough to give one vapors imagining how things would have played out had she been allowed to keep her tresses running their natural shade of red.