Crimson Peak bears strong semblances to two of director Guillermo del Toro’s earlier works that dabble in the supernatural – it’s essentially a marriage between the plot of The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and the stylistic visuals of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
Right off the bat, I must say that Crimson Peak is not his best film, but because it is built from the DNA of two of his greatest, most acclaimed works, it’s still remarkable and entertaining.
Set at the end of the 19th Century, the film begins in New Jersey with Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a driven and quick-witted aspiring author who is determined to get her novel published.
Edith is different from the other genteel ladies of her time – she eschews the social pursuits of the American aristocrat for the company of books and her manuscripts. She also sees dead people – the apparition of her deceased mother drops in from time to time to give ominous warnings in the eeriest ways possible. Which is why the plot of her unpublished novel involves ghosts (meta alert!).
She meets the dashing and mysterious Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an engineer who is also a fading British aristocrat with a crumbling empire. Edith falls for his exotic charms and seemingly tender demeanour, much to the chagrin of her intuitive father and her childhood friend Dr Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who obviously loves her but is sadly friendzoned.
Edith marries Thomas and goes to live with him and his beautiful but harsh sister Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) at their childhood home in rural England, a dilapidated mansion nicknamed Crimson Peak because it is constantly oozing the blood red clay deposits found on the family plot, which they have been mining and selling for decades.
It is here that dark family secrets are eventually unearthed (symbolism alert!) and Edith soon learns the truth about the man she married.
If you’re already a fan of del Toro’s horror repertoire, chances are you will enjoy Crimson Peak and you will already know that the film is not going to be a typical, straight up ghost story but more of an allegory of psychological and emotional trauma.
At one point in the film, an exasperated Edith explains that her unpublished novel is not a ghost story but a story with ghosts in it, and that they are metaphors of the past. Remember the meta alert from earlier? Those who have been following the production of this film closely would immediately pick up that del Toro is addressing the movie audience here through his protagonist.
The director has pointed out in numerous press interviews and even tweeted that Crimson Peak is not a horror film but a gothic romance.
Like the lamenting spectral entity that haunts the young orphans in The Devil’s Backbone, the ghosts of Crimson Peak symbolise the sins of the past and how one is haunted by the repercussions of these transgressions. So the film ends up being more darkly tragic than all out scary.
Sorry, thrill seekers. But Guillermo del Toro sympathises with the monsters, and this is evident in how lovingly the ghosts are designed – they’re ghastly and mangled bodies yes but also very elaborate and strangely magnificent. And also in the way del Toro created such cruel yet soulful antagonists.
Having said that, there are enough creepy and macabre moments, which are worthy of Stephen King’s and Joe Hill’s stamps of approval. The father and son horror writers caught the film at an early private screening some months ago and tweeted their admiration, proclaiming it to be “beautiful” and “terrifying”.
And Crimson Peak is gorgeous! The exquisite details in the sets and costumes are hatched from the creative prowess of cinematographer Dan Laustsen, production designer Thomas Sanders and costume designer Kate Hawley. They have put together a feast for the eyes that is also authentic of the Victorian age.
Since we’re on the subject of beauty, one is also treated to an impeccably good-looking cast of some of the industry’s most coveted actors. Chastain delivers a standout performance as the terrible and troubled Lucille. In an intense sequence, in which Lucille feeds an ailing Edith porridge, she scrapes the spoon against the porcelain bowl as she talks about her abusive father, Chastain’s work is particularly inspired.
The role of Thomas fits Hiddleston like a glove. He has proven to be particularly adept at portraying charming, refined characters with a sort of dangerous savagery simmering just below the surface. And let’s face it – the Internet’s boyfriend can do no wrong! The only crime here is that we’re robbed of the chance to view his ahem assets.
The infamous lovemaking scene (it caused a fair bit of media and fan frenzy), in which the heartthrob drops his trou, has been unceremoniously cut from the film so that Crimson Peak passes the board of censors with an NC16 rating. So basically we’re allowed to see a grisly murder where a face gets smashed in but not the Hiddlesbum? Really, MDA?
Wasikowska is likable as Edith, who exudes warmth that is a foil to Thomas and Lucille’s icy calculations. And while Hunnam is sadly a little sidelined, his character is classy and he plays Dr McMichael with an understated elegance.
Crimson Peak falls short of being a masterpiece because its tropes feel all too familiar and the film is largely unsurprising. Even the mystery’s great reveal is a little underwhelming but the journey there is undeniably engrossing.
If anything, it’s an arresting throwback to the literature of Gothic greats like the Bronte sisters and Charlotte Perkins Gilman as well as some of cinema’s most chilling haunted house films such as The Haunting (1963), The Shining (1980), and The Innocents (1961).
And how often do we get films these days that are made from scratch and not based on a book, comic book or is a reboot of a past movie? Worth checking out, methinks!
Update: Thanks to fellow geek Vanessa Chan, here is Hiddlesbum in all its glory. (NSFW)
Crimson Peak is playing in Singapore now. Have you seen it? Tell us what you think!