“In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds – and remembers.” (IMDB)
This film was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Robbins.
In this Gothic romance, set in America and Britain, ghosts are real, and sometimes, they can be seen. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is convinced that ghosts are real when she begins seeing them at an early age, but nothing can prepare her for the horror that awaits at Allerdale Hall, nicknamed by locals “Crimson Peak” (roll credits) for the red-colored clay that blankets the hillside. The house is owned and occupied by brother and sister Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Lucille (Jessica Chastain) Sharpe, and when the East Wind blows, it certainly can feel as if the house is alive, but is it all just Edith’s imagination, or was Crimson Peak the site of a violent past?
I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro since I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and I’ve heard that he’s doing Pinocchio too (can you imagine Pleasure Island ala del Toro? Bangarang!) So when I heard about Crimson Peak, I was hoping for haunting visuals, a bit of magic realism, and fascinating, layered characters and it’s aces in this film for sure. What I find almost more interesting than the film itself— and I’ve got to be careful how I talk about it because spoilers WILL ruin the experience — is all of the behind the scenes work that went into the making of the film, everything I’ve read from articles online to Crimson Peak: The Art of Darkness, which if you enjoy the film, I whole-heartedly recommend you check out the book.
Allerdale Hall, sadly, does not actually exist but was built on studio over a period of several months. Guillermo del Toro plays with physical effects (i.e. different sizes of the same furniture) to play with scale and make Edith look swallowed up and lost in some scenes, and more comfortable/at home in others. As part of the directing of the actors, each received a biography of their character and reputably, a secret that they could not share with the other actor(s) in the film. This technique was to help them explore the character and the subtext in the dialogue.
I love how the setting is itself gorgeously gothic, with a bit of steampunk grunge thrown in (the mining equipment) and while dilapidated and strange, there are some truly magical visuals that get carried into the film and lend a fairytale sensibility to the whole thing so despite the horror elements, it is more of a suspense/drama/fantasy/romance than it is a proper horror film.
Thematically, I was fascinated by the contrast of the moths to Lucille, and the butterflies to Edith, and the initial foreshadowing from the very earliest parts of the film, if you’re paying attention. There are some wonderful choices made with the costumes, (I especially love the canary yellows Edith favors as opposed to the passionate reds of Lucille), and not to nitpick, but there were some other costume decisions that got on my nerves.
In one scene, for example, Thomas Sharpe wears a finely tailored, but 10 years out of date, suit, and some scuffed shoes, and this was done to indicate that the Sharpes were once prosperous, but no longer so. This would’ve been a subtle detail that I would’ve enjoyed more if they’d just lingered on the costumes with the camera a bit longer. Instead, the script calls for a character having to point this out as a significant detail to the audience, and all subtlety is lost.
There’s also a sickly green palette to the whole house which just feels so menacingly wrong, like the preamble to a tornadic sky, and the color is a disturbing contrast to the red clay earth that seeps like oil through the floorboards, in the water, and defies the purity of winter itself. It was perfect.
There is some gory violence and graphic sex in the film, but this is fairly on par for anyone familiar with the melodrama of a good Gothic story.
Oddly enough, in some ways, the plot is eerily similar to Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. I don’t know that I’d go far as to call the film a direct homage to Udolpho, but it is certainly an homage to the genre itself and I loved every bit of it. Do you hear that Hollywood? Make me more Gothic romances!
Edith, like Emily St. Aubert, is a slender, graceful, beautiful but naïve young woman, interested in literature (she wants to be a writer) and nature. Edith and Emily also share similar fates with their parental background. The role of Valancourt, the dashing, suitable match (but poor?), will be played this evening by Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunman), her best friend from an early age who she’s just interested in platonically… for now. There are a few other parallels but I hesitate to go into detail without spoilers. Just keep your eyes open for them in the film.
A special nod goes to Burn Gorman appearing in a bit role as ‘Holly’. You make me giggle whenever you are on screen and I adored your portrayal of Guppy in Bleak House (2005). Thank you for stealing every scene you are in.
Crimson Peak is rated R and has a running time of 1 hr and 59 minutes.