It’s established within the first few words spoken aloud in Crimson Peak that hauntings aren’t just for the metaphors within the manuscript that Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is working on. “Ghosts are real. That much I know.” While Edith is working on the kind of story in which ghosts represent all the past and present sins of the currently living, Crimson Peak sees specters as not only everything that Edith understands them to be, but also as tangible, physical things. Things that haunt you even when the rational mind dictates that they’re just apparitions. Things that can touch you, and in turn, touch back. Things that follow you no matter how far you might try to go to elude them.
The film’s understanding of the paranormal is in perfect keeping with the ways that Guillermo Del Toro has approached the fantastical in his work. As a filmmaker he’s always been interested in the hows and whys of ghosts and monsters and other such creatures; for Del Toro, these are natural outgrowths of our own most paranoid fears, and again, of our various misdeeds. Crimson Peak adopts the vestiges of a Hammer horror revival (lavish mansions, ostentatious splashes of color, performances traversing a fragile line between camp and the best kind of melodrama) in order to paint on this particular canvas, one where the presences of ghosts are not only never in doubt, but are sometimes even welcome.
It’s a story of various spectral figures, but it’s also a story about Edith, confident and intelligent and coming to the crushing realization that in Buffalo circa 1901, nobody wants to read (let alone publish) a woman’s work. She’s told “it needs a love story,” even as this is far from the kind of work Edith’s interested in doing. Her eye is caught by the unusual, the disturbed, and so it’s of little surprise that she’s eventually drawn to Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet who comes to America and to Edith’s affluent father in hopes of funding a clay-mining machine of his own invention that would save his family’s crumbling estate.
Sharpe leaves not with the money, but with Edith. Despite the protestations of both her father and her friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam), who urge Edith to tread lightly, she leaves behind the many past and present tragedies of her American life for a new one on the Sharpe estate, Allerdale Hall, with Thomas and with his icy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Lucille is far from keen on Edith, who’s too curious for a weathered house like the Sharpes’. As is often the case in films that unfold in deteriorating, baroque houses, Allerdale is far more than what it seems, and the film teases at its mysteries with a mixture of dark humor and darker tragedy.
Crimson Peak is a strikingly humane piece of work from a filmmaker not primarily known for his interest in humanity (at least in its plainest forms), and it’s better for it. At least, it’s humane in the way that its plot revelations slowly unfurl, less as a horror film than as a slow descent into horrors both supernatural and worldly. Little is understated or handled with subtlety, particularly in the case of the film’s stunning art design. Crimson Peak is often breathtaking in its beauty, alternating between richly imagined period details and the Sharpe house’s Argento-esque color palette, where black has never been blacker and the red clay and blue-green interiors vacillate between the lurid and the picturesque.
The film’s performances are likewise pitched between exaggeration and emotional depth, and Del Toro finds an able foursome, chief among whom stands Chastain. Her Lucille exudes menace and disinterest from the first frame, and yet the endlessly versatile actress finds countless notes of haunted loss and venomous contempt beneath the vampish trappings. It’s as keyed-in a performance as any film this year has found, and it’s matched by Wasikowska’s fine work as a heroine who starts as plucky and soon turns tortured. As Edith digs ever deeper into Allerdale Hall, Wasikowska finds a deeper variation of the Jane Austen type she’s chided early on for being, a young woman who knows both ghosts and suffering and begins to surround herself with more of both than she could ever imagine.
It’s through no fault of the aesthetic that Crimson Peak falters on occasion; it’s the rare film that demands to be seen in theaters for no purposes of gimmickry, but instead for the utterly cinematic scope of virtually every shot. Instead, it’s when the film reveals itself that it will more than likely polarize viewers. It’s likely of little shock to most that Allerdale Hall is indeed rife with forces that Edith can scarcely understand, but their true nature renders Crimson Peak a very different film than the one initially teased, one woefully beholden to its eventual endgame. It is a film that will more than likely break down under scrutiny, one too often more interested in misdirection than it is in its central, chilling exploration of what attracts a ghost to the mortal plane, and how it finds itself there beyond that.
This is not to say that the film is without its substantial merits, or that it isn’t one that will find its vocal advocates. But be advised that Crimson Peak is hardly the house-of-nightmares feature that may be expected, whether because of promotional materials or because of Del Toro’s name on the masthead. It is a sadder, more pensive and muted film for its indulgences, more wrenching than frightening. Ghosts are real, and Crimson Peak spends no shortage of time lingering on them in all their wailing repulsion. But as both Edith and the film understand, sometimes ghosts are more than just ghosts.