Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam
If the trailers are to be believed, Crimson Peak should be a welcome return to what Guillermo Del Toro does best: horror with a sinister fairy tale spin. After 20 minutes however, it’s clear that his most recent picture isn’t the chilling film we were promised in the previews. That doesn’t make it bad; on the contrary, what we are given instead is a very successful gothic romance with undertones of modern horror.
Mia Wasikowska portrays Edith Cushing, who, after the tragic event of her mother’s death, lives alone with her father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) in early 20th Century New York. The night after her untimely demise, Edith is visited by her mother’s CGI heavy ghost, who warns her to, “Beware of Crimson Peak”. Fast-forward into her early adult years and Edith is an aspiring writer struggling to get her very own ghost story published. Enter the devilishly handsome Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is looking for an investment from Edith’s father for a mining machine of his own design. Thomas fails to impress the skeptical Cushing, but leaves a lasting impression upon his daughter.
Not heeding her dead mother’s warnings, Edith lets herself be swept from her drab but comfortable life in New York to Thomas’ unwelcoming English manor house. Arriving at Allerdale Hall, she soon discovers that this fairy tale isn’t going to end happily ever after.
Ghosts are real, that much I know. I’ve seen them all my life…
The house, creaking with age and occasionally excreting an alarming blood-red liquid, is full of secrets, that the inquisitive Edith is determined to uncover. She’ll have to handle Thomas’ strange sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who will try to stop her snooping at every turn.
Despite what its poor promotion suggests, Crimson Peak is less The Woman In Black and more Jane Eyre with a smattering of Paranormal Activity. It is, however, Del Toro’s best film in years, aligning itself more closely to his Spanish work (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth) than his other Hollywood pictures (Blade II, Hellboy and Pacific Rim). It’s his attempt to do in English what he so successfully achieves in his Spanish projects: the blending of horror with dark fantasy and fairy tales.
In terms of cinematography, Crimson Peak is an undeniably beautiful film. Each frame is a work of art; carefully crafted with Guillermo’s signature eye for detail. The film’s greatest accomplishment is Allerdale Hall. The first time we step into the manor with Edith, we are struck by its decaying beauty: what was once grand has now become almost inhospitable. A hole in the ceiling lets in snow and autumn leaves, emphasising the cold atmosphere and feeling of dread. The manor’s gothic architecture adds to this, with its pointed turrets and spiked corridor walls.
Del Toro has spoken about being inspired by writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, the Brontë sisters, and Charles Dickens, as well as the paintings of Casper David Friedrich. Similarities between Allerdale Hall and Statis House show Great Expectations to be a significant influence. Miss Havisham herself wouldn’t look out of place among the cobwebs and rot of Crimson Peak. There are also welcome references to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with long corridors, balls being mysteriously thrown back by unseen beings and a spectral woman emerging naked from a bathtub.
You will stay here, with us… won’t you? Wait for the storm to pass.
All of these influences have resulted in Del Toro creating something that feels familiar, but is actually very unique. It’s incredible that he was able to make Crimson Peak in the first place, due to its niche target audience and dark subject matter. With the film’s poor showing at the box office we’ll probably never get to see a big blockbuster film attempt to be this daring again.
As well as the set design, Crimson Peak is bolstered by a cast on fine form. Hiddleston is perfect as the charming yet secretive Sharpe, opposite Wasikowska, who is ideal as the inquisitive and strong, yet vulnerable Edith.
There are elements of Wasikowska’s performance that bring back bad memories of her fighting the Jabberwocky in Tim Burton’s rather lacklustre Alice In Wonderland. The scene in which she’s clutching a knife, tangled in a fight to the death, is not unlike Alice’s encounter with the Jabberwocky; the only real difference is that in Crimson Peak her knife isn’t as impressive as Alice’s sword. Yet she manages to hold our attention in the lead role, provoking a level of empathy within us that has us willing her to escape that house as soon as she can.
The one weak link in Crimson Peak’s cast would have to be Charlie Hunnam as Dr. Alan McMichael, obviously deeply in love with Edith from the very beginning of the film, and who would do anything for our young heroine. Hunnam is just not a strong enough lead alongside the likes of Hiddleston, Chastain and Wasikowska, and his character suffers from a lack of depth.
Where I come from, ghosts are not to be taken lightly.
Chastain however, steals the show as Thomas Sharpe’s overbearing sister Lucille. Her cold demeanour is one of the most frightening qualities of the film. Her brother, Thomas, is a much more relatable and likable character, finding it hard to balance a life with both his demanding sister Lucille and wife Edith.
Crimson Peak is a return to Del Toro’s roots. He’s back to what he does best and we should rejoice. He has proved that he can make a film in English that includes the subtleties that are present in his Spanish films.
Unfortunately for him, and the film’s profits, Crimson Peak’s terrible marketing resulted in a poor showing at the box office. If people had been told that it was a gothic romance from the beginning, this could have been a very different story. Instead, audiences were promised a ghost story, which it is to some extent but this is only a small part of Crimson Peak’s DNA.