Crimson Peak: Grim Grinning Ghosts, by Matt Warren
Macabre Mexican Guillermo Del Toro is justly famous for his luscious, tactile creature features. Older Del Toro masterpieces like Pan’s Labyrinth and Cronos have always felt almost as if they were carved out of oak and lacquered in brown sugar. By contrast, GDT’s new ghost fable Crimson Peak feels like it’s been clipped out of gossamer with a pair of turn-of-the-century Sterling silver fabric shears. Peak is lighter on its feet than anything else the director has done so far—more ethereal and feminine. It’s also totally fantastic, though not hugely frightening as pure horror. But it is 100% spooktacular. Trust me, I’ve run the tests.
Set between industrialized America and the moldering bluffs of rural England some time in the late 19th-century, Peak follows the travails of would-be novelist Edith Cushing, played with credible pluck and vim by the always-reliable Mia Wasikowska. Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) is a wealthy builder-widower working to modernize Gilded Age Buffalo, NY. One day, the Cushings receive a call from the dapper, if somewhat natty, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a black-clad Englishman with a big house and an aristocratic title, but no real money.
Thomas is desperate for the senior Cushing to invest in a scheme to mine clay from the ore deposits underneath Crimson Peak, the Sharpe family’s enormous, rapidly decaying ancestral estate. But Carter Shark Tanks the piss out of Thomas’s plan and sends him packing, though not before Hiddleston and Wasikowska make flirty eyes at each other. The romance accelerates despite both Carter’s objections and the ambivalence of Thomas’s black raincloud of a sister Lucille, played with scenery-chomping Disney-villain brio (shaky British accent notwithstanding) by Jessica Chastain.
Soon, Carter is out of the picture due to a grisly “accident” involving the notched edge of a porcelain washbasin. Thomas and Edith are married. Newly wed, they abscond—Edith’s inheritance in tow—back across the Pacific to Crimson Peak. It’s at this point the movie really kicks in, becoming not just a haunted house story (or more accurately, a haunted mansion-cum-laboratory), but the Platonic ideal of a haunted house story. Crimson Peak’s creaky floorboards are the creakiest; its dark hallways the darkest; its chills the chilliest; and its ghosts, quite possibly, the ghosts with the most.
My lovely bride and I used to say that the first season of FX’s American Horror Story wasn’t just about a haunted house but about the most haunted house. But Crimson Peak, both the film and its titular setting, surpasses Ryan Murphy’s kitsch fever dream in every way. Everything here is exaggerated: the bulbous and garish period costumes; the over-the-top enormity of the Sharpe family mansion; the mansion’s cartoonish level of decay; the succulent melodrama of Edith and Thomas’s complicated romance; Lady Lucille’s wickedness. Even the bland heroism of Charlie Hunnam’s Dr. McMichael, who might just rush in to save the day, is purposefully arch.
But despite Del Toro’s flamboyance and lack of aesthetic subtlety (red clay bubbles up through the ground of the estate like blood, for God’s sake) the story’s emotions—and by extension, the performances—are played with total earnestness. Not only is there no winking at the camera, Wasikowska and Hiddleston’s portrayal of the doomed lovers Edith and Thomas is hugely moving, despite the frequent intrusion of overgrown fetus monsters, hatched-wielding madwomen, and snaggletoothed she-ghouls upon the Gothic romance.
Crimson Peak is a wonderful film: well written, well acted, and amazingly beautiful to look at. More Wuthering Heights than House on Haunted Hill, it nonetheless reaffirms Del Toro as the premiere horror movie visionary of his generation. The director is slated to take on Disney’s Haunted Mansion next. But really, after this wouldn’t that be a bit redundant?