Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film is a very old-fashioned ghost story, albeit with a modern sense of bloodletting. “Crimson Peak” is a fairly perfect fit for Halloween, equal parts tense chiller and delectably intentional melodrama. It’s also one of the most beautiful looking films you’ll see this year.
We follow young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an idealistic writer who is swept up in a whirlwind romance by Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Being the end of the Victorian era, he whisks her away to his lonely mansion on a windswept hill. They are joined by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and a bevy of ghosts with dire warnings.
Del Toro’s critically lauded for his quieter, profoundly haunting Spanish-language films such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” He’s loved by audiences for zanier, louder English-language endeavors like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy.”
Few directors can successfully make films across such a broad spectrum. To which does the English-language “Crimson Peak” belong? It’s altogether something different, neither quiet and meditative like his smaller films nor brash and cheeky in the same way his big-budget fare is. Instead, Del Toro has crafted a riff on Gothic romances like “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca.”
“Crimson Peak” treads increasingly into that genre’s deliberately melodramatic mood, while dressing everything as if Edgar Allan Poe had imagined the sets into existence. “Crimson Peak” is scary, yes, but it’s not interested in the overwhelming terror of which Del Toro is capable. Instead, mystery and atmosphere are front and center. While all of Del Toro’s films have enjoyed fantastic designs and incredible atmosphere, “Crimson Peak” reaches even greater heights of macabre beauty.
All that said, this is a very particular kind of movie. It has the same fun with its material as “Pacific Rim,” but instead of riffing on the giant robot movies we know all too well by this point, he’s riffing on Gothic romance fiction. It’s not territory that will seem as fresh in many viewers’ minds, but if you’re willing to go along with Del Toro, this is his best job yet of treating genre as his playground.
To understand the movie is to understand Chastain’s role as Lucille. You may recognize Chastain as the lead from “Zero Dark Thirty,” the grown-up Murphy in “Interstellar,” or Matt Damon’s best chance at rescue in “The Martian.” From whichever role you know her, she’s something altogether different here. Her very first scene, Lucille is introduced playing the piano. Her fingers dance across the ivories with both a practiced skill and a flexed rigidity. The camera travels up the back of her dress, not evocatively, but to show that the design on its back resembles a satin vertebrae.
This is the level on which “Crimson Peak” works. Every scene holds a new detail if you’re paying close enough attention. Every piece of design and every edit hints at something crucial. Even the lighting in a painting quickly glanced can tell you whom to trust. The design is stellar in how it’s all put together to subtly direct the viewer. The way it’s filmed understands every nuance of that design. You could pick apart certain shots like you would paintings.
“Crimson Peak” will suffer with viewers somewhat because it’s been advertised as straight-up horror and there isn’t necessarily a large audience with a well of knowledge regarding Gothic romance. That’s really how you might best enjoy the film, recognizing how it exists both inside of and as a commentary on Gothic and Victorian literature. Without that background, the film may seem beautiful but outlandish. Fans of such literature, lovers of costume and set design, those who appreciate old-fashioned ghost stories, mystery fans, and even (perhaps especially) fans of giallo filmmaking will love “Crimson Peak.” Those expecting a more modern horror, or something particularly oppressive or jumpy in its scares, may be disappointed. “Crimson Peak” is a creepy film with beautiful tone, not really a scary one designed to make you leap from your seat.
In an odd way, “Crimson Peak” feels close kin to Tim Burton’s 1999 take on “Sleepy Hollow.” Both movies are gorgeous to take in, featuring some of the best set and costume design ever put to film. Both are filled with performances that are more clever in their melodrama than seeking to be real, although Chastain’s master-class performance in “Peak” somehow manages to encompass both extremes. “Sleepy Hollow” is more action- and comedy-oriented where “Crimson Peak” is literary-minded. They are both utter joys to watch, but more for the sake of their stunning craftsmanship and the fun the actors are having than as complete crowd-pleasers. Suffice to say, I plan to make them into a Halloween double-feature one day. Perhaps “Clue” can be the chaser for that cocktail.
On one last note, I very occasionally have synesthetic reactions to films. It’s not often – I can count the number of times it’s happened on one hand. I don’t imagine it’s a reaction most viewers will have, but to describe just how complete and different “Crimson Peak” is as an exercise in design, it brought me to that place in a powerful and overwhelming way. The woodwork felt tangible. The colors haunted me. You could feel the suits and dresses, taste the cold in the air, huddle at the dark of its night. It didn’t give me goosebumps through its scares, but rather because I could feel the temperature drop and the drifts of its blizzards on the back of my neck. If you are at all interested in seeing the film, don’t wait for a second. See it in the theater, see it on the big screen.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Crimson Peak” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing. Jessica Chastain plays Lucille Sharpe. Leslie Hope plays Mrs. McMichael, Emily Coutts plays Eunice, and Sofia Wells plays Young Edith. Briefer speaking parts include Joanna Douglas as Maid Annie, and Karen Glave and Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as a pair of unnamed maids.
There are also women ghosts with speaking parts, but these are played by men, including Doug Jones, who is Del Toro’s go-to creature actor.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
“Crimson Peak” is a film with feminism in mind. Edith is a writer who isn’t taken seriously because she’s a woman. She even types a manuscript up because she believes her handwriting betrays feminine qualities. Her father has faith in her ability to do as she will, but the rest of the world doesn’t understand why she rejects the game of suitors and marriage prospects. Wasikowska plays her as a smart mix of idealistic yet practical, and she’s most often in the hands of saving herself.
Lucille is a challenging role that could’ve gone rather badly in lesser hands, but Chastain absolutely obliterates the part. She’s not just threatening, she is the very idea of threat itself. You’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop here, you’re waiting for Chastain to close jaws on your jugular. It is a testament to Chastain that inside of three weeks, she’s delivered my favorite hero of the year (via a supporting role in “The Martian”) and my favorite villain in “Crimson Peak.”
Yes, Tom Hiddleston matters and gets more screen time than Chastain, but he’s really in the middle of things here. (Wasikowska easily gets the most screen time.) This film is really about its two women leads, the agency they exert over each other and their surroundings, and the game of cat-and-mouse they play.
This includes the dialogue they hold, the nature of it, and the topics covered. Equally importantly, it covers the way they’re portrayed, especially as the film inhabits something of a commentary on the nature of Gothic romance, the studio system of filmmaking, and the expectations of women within each.
Where did we get our fantastic images? The feature image with the yellow dress is from Slip Through Movies trailer article. The house and ghost images are from The Busybody’s Review in Pictures. The last two images, both with Jessica Chastain, are from a Bloody-Disgusting image feature.