Movie trailers make Crimson Peak look like an intelligent horror film. You see a woman in a haunted house with ghosts.
In reality, I’d say Crimson Peak is a period piece with a twist. Director Guillermo del Toro has merged Jane Austen-style romance with ghost stories to create something that feels familiar… yet it’s a totally refreshing movie, unlike any other period drama, romance, or horror film out there today.
The premise is this: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young writer who’s more interested in writing books about ghosts than getting married. She lives with her father (Jim Beaver), a self-made businessman who’s as supportive of her writing as he is protective of her ending up with the wrong man.
Things change when Edith meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who runs his family estate where they churn up red clay. Unfortunately, it’s not a big seller, and Sharpe is in need of financial support. Edith falls in love with him, marries him, and winds up at his mansion, where Thomas’s sister Lucille also resides. It seems they’re the last of their family.
Here are some of the things that make the film so interesting. (A few spoilers, but I won’t give away the ending!)
Period Romance Turned Upside Down
What I didn’t quite expect from this movie was how the first half hour feels like a traditional period piece. Almost like Jane Austen. As protagonist, Edith has a lot of spirit and ambition for a woman in her time, but Thomas sweeps her off her feet in a way that feels very typical of period romances. He’s charming, and while other women vie for his attention, he heaps his own on Edith alone. At one point, he whisks her to a party and waltzes with her in front of all the guests. It made me feel like I was reading an old romance novel… yet there’s something unsettling about how easy it all is.
The Haunted Mansion
Once Edith arrives at Crimson Peak, the mansion is like a whole new character in the book. The ceiling has a huge hole in it, letting snow fall down several stories to the entryway. The staircase creaks. Stepping on some floorboards on the ground floor cause red clay to seep up through the cracks; Thomas explains to Edith that the whole place is literally sinking. Turn on the water to fill the tub, and it comes out red at first until the pipes clear. Lucille walks around the place with a massive, clanking bundle of keys that lead to places Edith isn’t supposed to visit.
Ghosts with Stories
And then there are the ghosts. They’re done up in mediocre CGI, wispy black and red silhouettes that make it pretty clear how they were killed. Their bodies are mutilated if they died in a violent way — which they pretty much all did.
These are not very scary ghosts, but I don’t really think del Toro was trying to make them terrifying — he was more likely playing with the ghost story tropes. Every once in awhile, when a ghost is present, the music crescendoes to make you jump out of your seat. However, the actual appearance of the ghost is a little bit of a let-down after that. They’re spooky-looking, but they won’t horrify you in a “horror film” kind of way. (I guess that’s one thing I liked about this movie, not being a horror fan myself.)
In the end, the ghosts aren’t there to scare Edith (or you, the viewer) so much as communicate a message. They want to tell their stories — and warn Edith what her fate may be at Crimson Peak.
Finally, Jessica Chastain’s acting is superb in this film. She’s quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses, and she really shows her range in this movie. One minute, her character Lucille is cold and uninviting to Edith. Then she’s friendly, trying to get information out of Edith about the girl’s physical relationship with her brother. Later, when she learns that Edith has slept with her brother, she throws a pot down and pretends she’s upset about them not being home the previous night — but there’s obviously something else stewing. Toward the end of the film, she completely loses it and reveals a side of herself deranged by love.
It’s also an amazing feat of characterization. There’s a great interview with Chastain in Time, where she talks about del Toro’s depiction of women and how refreshing it is. In Lucille, he’s created a very believable monster who simply takes her twisted emotions too far.
I won’t give away more than that, but I really enjoyed this movie. It had some faults — a few unrealistic moments where Edith survives things she shouldn’t, and a little bit of dumb curiosity on her part. But it’s still an entertaining affair. There are funny parts, quiet moments, a few jump-scares, and lots of thrilling action scenes, particularly towards the end. It reminded me of old fairytales that are actually scary — one in particular, but saying which one might be too much of a spoiler.
Best of all, I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen to Edith until the very last moment. It’s so much fun when a storyteller is able to keep you guessing that much.