In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a young woman with aspirations of becoming a great author in Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, Crimson Peak. Of course, there’s a lot more to this story than a woman looking to become an author at the turn of the century. Edith’s father, Carter (Jim Beaver), is a wealthy businessman, and hopes to have his daughter marry a man of substance. Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) is one possible suitor that Carter approves of, but Edith will have none of it. She’s a modern woman, and since she considers Alan a friend (they’ve known each other since childhood), she’s not interested in furthering their relationship past being close friends. But all of that changes when Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) suddenly arrives in town with hopes of getting financing from Carter and his associates to help him build a machine that will dig up the valuable red clay that lies underneath his home in England. Thomas has his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in tow with him, and it’s quite obvious that something is decidedly off about her. Her frosty demeanor and stark features lend an air of evil to her. But Edith is taken with Thomas, much to her father’s chagrin, so he not only denies funds to Thomas, he wants him to go back to England post haste – before Edith completely falls in love with him.
As a matter of fact, he wants Thomas and Lucille to leave so badly that he gives them a check that will not only take care of their travel expenses, but give them some spending money as well. The next day, when Carter is at his men’s club, preparing to shave and have breakfast, he hears a noise in the bathroom. When he goes to investigate, he’s suddenly beset by a stranger in black, who repeatedly bashes Carter’s head against the bathroom sink so hard, his face literally caves in. Upon learning of her father’s demise (and after a short period of mourning), Edith decides that she will indeed marry Thomas and travel back to England with him and his sister. But when she arrives at her new home, Allerdale Hall, she discovers that all is not as it seems – and she begins to distrust Lucille.
Del Toro makes the surprising decision to tell the audience exactly what Thomas and Lucille are up to early in the film, with Thomas planning to marry Edith for her father’s money. Lucille is also complicit in this act, and is playing along with Thomas. So once they all arrive at the palatial, but decrepit Allerdale Hall, the question is not whether or not the deceitful brother and sister will murder Edith and get all her money, but when will Edith find out, and will it be in time? And as creepy as Allerdale Hall already is, there’s also a problem with some ghosts that only Edith can see, ghosts that appear to be trying to tell her something. Earlier in the film, we learn that Edith’s mother had died when she was a child. But young Edith gets a visit from her mother warning her to “Beware the Crimson Peak“. Edith had no idea of what her mother was trying to tell her, but once she arrives at Allerdale Hall, it becomes all too clear. The hall sits on top of a snow covered hill, and the bright red clay that lies underneath it slowly forces it’s way to the top, oozing through the snow, causing it to turn bright red – here is Crimson Peak.
The script (by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins) gives the first half of the film a wonderfully authentic feel. The dialog feels true and natural coming out of the actors mouths, and the production design is nothing short of amazing. But production designer Thomas Sanders shoots his wad all over the second half’s incredibly detailed and decrepit Allerdale Hall. It’s both opulent and oppressive at the same time, a crumbling castle sitting on a hill that looks imposing when seen from outside, but looks like it’s on its last legs once seen from inside of it. A giant hole in the ceiling that allows snow to fall through it and onto the main floor is an astoundingly sad visual. Eventually one comes to realize that it’s representative of what great wealth becomes when it’s frittered away and left to rot from indifference. Allerdale Hall is the most beautiful, yet ugly edifice ever seen in a film in my opinion. During the second half of the film, which takes place entirely in the hall, the dialog becomes more muted, more personal if you will. There’s a craftily designed dynamic between Edith, Thomas and Lucille taking place here, and all involved are fully invested in their characterizations. But there are also moments of silence, moments so quiet you can almost hear the snow falling onto the floor, and these moments make the forthcoming frights all the more frightful.
All actors involved do wonderful work here, with stand out moments coming from each of the principal actors. Edith has a fragile demeanor that hides the toughness underneath it and Wasikowska plays it to the hilt. Hiddleston is fast becoming one of the finest actors currently working in film, and as Thomas he straddles the fine line between good and ghastly with precision. But it’s Chastain’s performance as Lucille that stands out in the film. Ms. Chastain is indeed a beautiful woman, but somehow she manages to make Lucille cold and hard to look at here. Her finely chiseled features are perfect for giving Lucille a hard edge. With her hair always pinned up in a bun, she looks sincerely draconian and stern throughout the film. She’s actually scarier than the ghosts are! There’s also some shocking violence that takes place betwixt the three main characters in the end that was effectively frightening.
The ghosts in the film don’t play as big of a role as you might think, and that’s the major fault with Crimson Peak. Although it is essentially a ghost story, I found it to be more of a gothic melodrama that just happens to have a few ghosts thrown into the mix. In the beginning, I was indeed scared of the ghost that warned Edith as a child, but afterwards, I found the ghosts to look creepy, but not scary in the least. This can be construed as a deal breaker since the film is being advertised as a horror film/ghost story, but I don’t think it is. I didn’t find Crimson Peak to be very scary, but it is fascinating, and the performances are top notch. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch the amazing production design. All in all, Crimson Peak is a good, but not great film. It looks too good to be called a failure, and it falls short as a scary film, but it rocks as a dark melodrama, that and the craft behind it is more than enough to take a chance on it.
Crimson Peak – 3 out of 5 shrouds.
Crimson Peak is now available on bluray per Universal