“It’s not a ghost story,” explains Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing, early on in Crimson Peak. “It’s a story with ghosts in it.” She’s trying to persuade a doubtful publisher to take a punt on her debut novel, imagining herself the next Mary Shelley, but she’s also speaking for director Guillermo Del Toro. Because although Crimson Peak is a story with ghosts in it, it isn’t quite a ghost story. It’s a romance; a sumptuous Gothic romance where ghosts might be real, but they’re also just a metaphor.
The bare bones of the plot are pretty typical Gothic fare. At the dawn of the 20th century, wannabe author Edith is swept off her feet by a brooding (and impoverished) nobleman. After marrying the sad-eyed Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), she’s whisked away to his ancestral home in England – but Allerdale Hall, known as Crimson Peak because of the blood-red clay it’s built on, is as full of secrets as it is cobwebs. Stuck there alone with her new husband and his over-protective sister (Jessica Chastain), Edith will need to do a lot of creeping around by candlelight if she wants to put the Hall’s ghosts to rest.
Del Toro’s influences are easy to pick out: there are hat-tips to Rebecca, Hammer Horror, Edgar Allen Poe, and more than a dash of Shirley Jackson. There are so many, in fact, that the film should probably come with a recommended reading list. But though the references are clear, Crimson Peak is pure Del Toro, and it’s his embellishments that make it sing. Like Pacific Rim, it’s a love letter to the past that’s utterly respectful even as it veers off in new directions. And like his Spanish language horrors, it plays supernatural terrors off against human evils, ultimately finding the latter far more disturbing.
As viewers, we’re let in on most of the film’s twists and turns ahead of time, so there are very few surprises when the house’s secrets are brought to light. We know, even if Edith doesn’t, that she’s walking into a trap, yet it’s still deeply pleasurable to follow her flickering candelabra down shadowy corridors and into forbidden rooms. Wasikowska brings an intelligence and ballsiness to her character that makes her impossible not to root for; she’s a wilful heroine in the Jane Eyre mould, though if she’d married Mr Rochester she probably would’ve marched him up to the attic and demanded to know what he was playing at. All three of the central performances are persuasive, really; Hiddleston’s all charm and subtle menace, while Chastain’s intensity often threatens to steal the show.
The real star, though, is the house itself. The production design is incredible: there’s barely an inch of the enormous haunted mansion that hasn’t been lavishly decorated and then destroyed. It’s beautiful and repulsive, a delirious confection of a set crammed with insects and rotting wallpaper, with scarlet clay oozing from beneath every floorboard. Even the ghosts match the décor, dripping ectoplasm from their broken bones and decayed faces. There’s no subtlety to it, but then this isn’t a subtle film. Every scene, every line of dialogue, even every costume choice is stuffed to bursting with significance. It should be overkill, but Del Toro’s commitment to his story makes it work. Where a lesser director might’ve winked to his audience, Del Toro plays it deadly straight.
The only disappointment, really, is that it’s not very frightening. There’s only one jump scare, and it’s a mild one; there is violence – even extreme, watch-through-your-fingers violence – but it’s so stylised, so beautiful even in its darkest moments, that even while you’re immersed in the melodrama, it’s all a little distant. The screen wipes (and a bit of cheekiness in the credits) only underline that feeling. Horrifying though it might be, it’s still just a story that we’re being told. Somehow, even that works in its favour. The spookier it gets, the cosier it feels, and there’s enough of a happy ending that it’s all perversely comforting.
Crimson Peak, then, is as warm as Allerdale Hall is cold; as decadent and velvety soft as a giant tasselled cushion, this is a movie to luxuriate in.