The first line of dialogue in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is “Ghosts are real”, spoken in voice-over by a bloodied, worn Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska). It’s a remarkably short declarative sentence considering how much it contains. It not only lets us know that the ghosts in the story we’re about to watch are not imagined or completely metaphorical, and it tell us that we’re watching a constructed narrative. That might seem like an obvious conclusion, but it’s simplicity is what strikes at the heart of del Toro’s stylish but inconsistent haunted house tale.
Edith, an American heiress and aspiring horror novelist, has married Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet who owns little except his family title and a decaying mansion that sits atop a large deposit of red clay. The only person sharing the home with the newlyweds is Thomas’ sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who likes to spend her days playing piano and being incredibly, insistently creepy. Edith quickly finds out that not is all as it seems, and she soon finds herself in danger, haunted by the ghosts that roam the halls of Crimson Peak.
Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: Crimson Peak is not terribly frightening. It’s creepy, moody, and has moments of gore, but it simply isn’t frightening. Then again, it isn’t necessarily meant to be. Although it’s been marketed as a horror film, this is really a gothic romance that happens to have ghosts in it. However, the romance is never really all that believable. Wasikowska and Hiddleston don’t have a tremendous amount of chemistry, and their whirlwind romance never once feels organic. However, that appears to be the whole point.
From the opening scenes, del Toro lets us know that this is indeed a movie that lives fully within the tropes and expectations of the genres it straddles. He gives his main character the same last name as one of Hammer Studios’ most prolific actors, he leans heavily on the iris wipe for the first half of the film, and within the first five minutes, he’s referenced the famous “creeping shadow” image from Nosferatu. There’s a level of artifice that soaks through the screen like the oozing red clay seeping in through the mansion’s foundation. Del Toro never pretends that his film is anything but an artificial narrative.
The film thrives primarily on its visuals, and del Toro has paid impeccable attention to every detail. The setting and decoration is period-perfect, the costumes are Oscar-worthy, and the mansion itself is more of a character than any of the human cast. The enivornment is crawling not only with huge black moths, but with ruby-red ghosts stripped of skin and bleeding scarlet mist. It’s clear from the first time Edith sets foot in there that terrible things are going to happen because nothing good ever happens in a place as dilapidated and decayed as this.
Similarly, a lot of the character beats are telegraphed well before they happen (and this extends to the movie’s big twist, which is patently obvious from the first act), so it’s up to the actors to keep us interested. Edith is a highly reactive heroine, and even though she’s smart, she’s too naive to be considered clever. Waiskowska isn’t given much to do except get emotional and wide-eyed at whatever the script hurls at her, but she makes the best of it. She still comes off a little better than Hiddleston, who’s character is little more than the film’s MacGuffin, but he still commits to it anyway. (And he gets the film’s only bit of nudity.)
The lynchpin of the whole film, though, is Jessica Chastain. Her Lucille is a tightly-wound, barely-restrained avatar of generations of repression, anger, and tragedy, and Chastain has a clear grasp of what makes her run. Lucille first appears playing a dissonant piano piece while dressed in a blood-red dress on loan from Elizabeth Bathory, so it isn’t like Lucille’s pathos is a secret, but Chastain plays her like a post-Victorian Lady Macbeth. A scene where Lucille is spoon-feeding porridge to an ailing Edith, while slowly scraping the metal spoon against the porcelain bowl and calmly relating how violently abusive her father was to her mother is more terrifying than any of the apparitions in the house.
Crimson Peak is more Jane Eyre than The Haunting, and it works best when it’s centered on the tiny cast of characters residing in the titular mansion. A subplot about an old beau of Edith’s back in New York investigating the history of the Sharpe family is ridiculously extraneous and extends the film far past its natural lifespan. Crimson Peak do anything new as either a horror or a gothic romance, but it makes up for it with the sumptuous, engrossing visuals that are del Toro's hallmark. It really is a shame, though, that that’s really all it has. Well, that and a bloody frightening Jessica Chastain.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-