In Guillermo del Toro’s turn of the 20th century, the colors were brighter, the ghosts meaner and the women more susceptible to marrying into families with seedy pasts.
With Crimson Peak, del Toro has co-written and directed a solid but unexceptional addition to his oeuvre, besting his previous work in one main area: aesthetics. This is a wonderfully pretty film.
It begins in New York, in the home of budding ghost-story writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) and her father (Jim Beaver). Inexplicably, Cushing has been able to see ghosts since her mother’s death by consumption. Her mother’s spirit warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak.”
Cushing is introduced to the charming and mysterious Ethan Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English inventor. She falls in love with him, but Sharpe’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) strongly disapproves. After opposing Sharpe’s desire to marry his daughter, Cushing’s father dies from what looks like a freak accident. A distraught Cushing finds solace by marrying Sharpe and moving into the Sharpe manor, a cold, dilapidated and isolated castle surrounded by the rare, bright red clay that Sharpe mines.
Like the red manor, Cushing’s life continues to fall apart. The couple rarely gets intimate and Cushing’s health slowly deteriorates. The cause is poison and the perpetrator is Lucille, who urges Sharpe to hurry up and get rid of his new wife so that they can take her inheritance. Sharpe, however, is slowly falling in love with her. In her naivety, Cushing seems unable to protect herself from Lucille. Slowly, she begins to fight back with help from her longtime friend back home, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam).
One of the film’s main problems is in its plot, which is predictable and requires some suspension of disbelief. Cushing, for example, remains oblivious to the nefarious intentions of the Sharpe siblings despite the odd timing of her father’s death. Even when the Sharpes’ dark family secret is implied through their interactions, Cushing very slowly pieces together clues to discover it for herself. Twists can be seen from a mile away, but the film still trudges through the plot at a normal pace.
However, the world constructed in Crimson Peak rescues the film and makes it engaging. The three principal actors manage to embody both period characters and surreal emotions. Hiddleston is typecast as a confident but secretly compassionate lead reminiscent of Loki. Wasikowska is intelligent and naïve, reminiscent of her earlier role as Jane Eyre. Chastain, on the other hand, takes on a cold villain-like character that is unlike any of her earlier roles. She is unrecognizable as the dark-haired, furious, and violent Lucille.
If Crimson Peak has any chance of an Oscar nomination, it will be for production design. The film is a period horror film, yet it is not exactly a gothic horror film. Costumes and hair and makeup look historical with a modern twist, giving the film an eerie feel. The snowy exterior of the Sharpe mansion is constantly covered in red clay. The colors of the sets and costumes are so rich and contrasted that they can be analyzed to death for symbolism.
The lush production design of Crimson Peak is a part of del Toro’s signature style, which combines horror with beauty. The horror aspects of the film are well-filmed, but not developed thoroughly enough. The camera works well for suspense, revealing the setting slowly to reveal ghosts and transition into a different mood.
Cushing’s character journey in the film is heavily related to her relationship with ghosts, which begins as one of fear and becomes more complex. One ghost, in particular, becomes instrumental to the resolution. Throughout the rest of the film, however, the ghosts are not involved enough to explain why they are incorporated into the story. They’re scary, but Cushing’s narration doesn’t reveal her thoughts toward them. They are more like out-of-place deus ex machina than a theme in the film.
In terms of both story and artistic elements, Crimson Peak delivers a standard serving of del Toro storytelling. Horror is present and creates mood and meaning, but does not take precedence in the story. What comes to the fore is character development and romance.
Crimson Peak is a good alternative Halloween film for those moviegoers who are interested in horror but get turned off by gore or horror tropes. Though it neither scares nor entertains like its peers, it has a charm that makes up for it.