Every career has its ups and downs, because, let’s face it, nobody is perfect. So when Guillermo del Toro’s last directorial feature, Pacific Rim, turned out to be some sort of poorly executed Lovecraftian version of Transformers, I let it slide. When he was one of the people responsible for the incredibly disappointing (to me, at least) Hobbit trilogy, I again let it slide. Because you know what? People make mistakes. Also, because I loved Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. In fact, when I first caught wind of Crimson Peak, I immediately thought of The Devil’s Backbone and got excited – del Toro is doing ghosts again! This has to be good! Right?
We open on Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) standing alone and bloody in a snowy field. Her narrative informs us that she never believed in ghosts until she saw one, and, that’s when we flash back to the funeral of her mother. Lo and behold, the ghost of her mother (who apparently did not leave a particularly pretty corpse) visits her shortly after, and ominously warns her to “Beware of Crimson Peak!” Noted, mom. Fast forward 14 years, and little Edith is all grown up and working on writing her book – a ghost story. Wait, no, “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a story with ghosts in it”, explains Edith. Ghosts that are really just metaphors for the past. Cliche, sure, but we’ll work with it.
At this point, if you’ve seen the trailer that makes it look like much more of a flat out horror film, and you’re good at picking up not even slightly subtle clues, you’ll realize that this isn’t a horror film, but rather… a story with ghosts in it. Still, that’s not all that removed from The Devil’s Backbone, so del Toro is sticking to his guns. Edith runs into an old childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (played by del Toro alum Charlie Hunnam, who apparently still can’t quite do an American accent), who is still harboring quite the crush on Ms. Cushing. A little chit chat, but Edith is running late to deliver her
ghost story story with ghosts to a potential publisher, but first, here’s the good doctor’s mom to be juuuuust a bit of a bitch to Edith. I was pretty fond of Edith telling her that she thinks of herself more as Mary Shelley than Jane Austen, a nice little nod to someone who would have presumably been a big influence to her given the time and style of writing she preferred.
If you hadn’t picked up on it yet, the meeting with the publisher should make it fairly clear that the book that Edith is hoping to unleash upon the world is, in fact, the movie that you’re watching. Once the publisher tells her that she should put a love story in it, despite her irritation at his suggestion, you know what’s coming. Enter Sir Thomas Sharpe (another fantastic performance from Tom Hiddleston… and his ass), an English baronet whom Edith had just the day before referred to as a “parasite”. He’s hot, he tells her what he saw of her novel caught his interest, and boom, she’s hooked. Sharpe is in town to meet with Carter Cushing (Deadwood’s Jim Beaver) to try and secure investors for a mining machine that he’s working on, one which will dig up precious red clay. Crimson, if you’re paying attention. Carter unceremoniously shoots him down, of course, but unfortunately for ol’ Carter, Thomas and his creepy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, who really steals the show) aren’t really the type to take no for an answer. It’s apparent immediately that there’s something odd about their relationship between Lucille and Thomas, if you know what I mean.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but things don’t end so well for Mr. Cushing. Despite her father bribing the Sharpe siblings to kick rocks, Edith marries Sir Thomas and takes off with him back to England to live in his giant, dilapidated, creepy ass house, Allerdale Hall. Love makes you do funny things, but I’m pretty sure one look at that house and her legitimate reaction would have been “Yeah, no, not living here.” But then we wouldn’t have the rest of the movie, would we? I’m not one to really reveal spoilers, but suffice it to say, the house looks creepy as hell for a reason. Oh, and Thomas casually mentions to Edith that the nickname given to the house is Crimson Peak. The look on her face of course reveals that she understands her ghost mother’s warning now, and she’s probably also wondering why ghost mom couldn’t have been a little more specific. From here on out, the pages of Edith’s story are filled with discoveries of murder, deception, and secrets. Also, tea. There are some glaring moments of “Oh, come on!” with the story from this point on that just add to the plot holes that unfortunately plague the film. We overlook them, though, because… you know, it’s pretty.
There are a few interesting things about the ghosts in this film. Aside from all of them being there to help Edith get to the bottom of just what the hell is going on (once she gets used to being scared shitless of them, which happens surprisingly quick), they’re sort of color coded, for lack of a better term. I’ve always been a fan of del Toro’s use of color as symbolism, and it definitely shines here. At one point near the end of the film, Edith is explaining the many reasons that ghosts linger – some are emotionally attached to a person or place, some have died violent deaths, pretty standard ghost stuff. As that translates in the del Toro world, Edith’s mother for example appears as a black ghost – one tied due to emotion. The ghosts in the mansion are blood red, which as you can probably guess, denotes a violent end. Between this use of color, and the inspiration del Toro took from Italian film maker Mario Bava for the usage of color throughout, Crimson Peak is a visually incredible film. The story, however, leaves a lot to be desired. This is where I feel like it has a lot more in common with Pacific Rim than Pan’s Labyrinth; style over substance.
I genuinely wanted to like Crimson Peak, and I’m more than a little bummed that I left feeling so disappointed. Story aside, literally everything about this movie I loved. Interestingly enough, there’s a pro to the con – with a storyline that was so utterly familiar, it allowed for a lot of focus to be on just how gorgeous the film was. The acting (can someone please cast Tom Hiddleston as Dracula already?), direction, cinematography, the score (PJ Harvey covering Nick Cave!)… it was all absolutely brilliant. I feel pretty confident that with a second viewing (which will definitely occur), it’s pretty likely that I’ll end up enjoying the film a bit more. There are a few things that are more subtle than you’d think thrown in (chief amongst them are the striking similarities between Crimson Peak and Flowers in the Attic), and I’m looking forward to exploring those further.