Despite the brutal horror in Midsommar, the images that’ll stick with you after the credits roll are all close ups of Florence Pugh’s face. Pugh crying inconsolably. Pugh screaming in abject horror. And, in the closing moments, Pugh smiling beatifically.
Like writer/director Ari Aster’s previous film, Hereditary, Midsommar is a story about grief and heartbreak built around one massive performance. When we first meet Pugh as Dani Amour, she’s already in a state of distress, and things only get worse from there. Midsommar opens in mid-winter, as Dani discovers that her depressed sister has killed not only herself but also their parents. Her pain is immense, and the only support she has left is her useless boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who was already planning to dump her.
But when she invites herself along on a lads’ holiday to Sweden, where Christian and his anthropology student mates are hoping to study the rituals of the mysterious Hårga community, well… let’s just say her internal anguish gets externalised.
This director’s cut doesn’t feel strictly necessary: the extra scenes include an extra abortive ritual and some more bickering, and their inclusion extends an already long film to an indulgent 163 minutes. But then it was an indulgent film in the first place. Did every flat surface really have to be covered in paintings, tapestries, or runes spelling out the unsuspecting characters’ doom? Was there any need for all the scenes of people sitting down to eat together? And were all those over-saturated, distorted flowers really needed? Of course not! But all of those details, plus Pugh’s killer performance, elevate what could have been a basic Wicker Man re-tread into an intense sensory experience that demands your rapt attention.
Yes, it takes nearly three hours to get somewhere any half-savvy horror fan will already have known it was heading. But it’s worth the trip.
“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.
What’s the difference between magic and science? Maybe, sometimes, there isn’t one. If you can measure a magic trick, if you can break it down to its constituent parts and analyse how it works, doesn’t it turn into science? The Quiet Ones’ Professor Coupland thinks so. He’s got a theory about poltergeists that might win him a Nobel prize, if only he can prove it.
So he sets up an experiment. In a crumbling old country house, miles away from anywhere, Coupland plans to teach a disturbed young woman to manifest her mental illness as a paranormal entity. With a hired cameraman ready to capture his work on tape, he thinks he’ll finally get the evidence he needs. But as time and money dribble away, his pseudo-scientific methods soon dissolve into hokey spiritualism, and the experiment turns into something like torture. Through it all, the camera keeps rolling, documenting every step of the increasingly scary process.
The actual scares aren’t particularly innovative, though they’re effective enough in the moment – creaky doors and loud bangs tend to make you jump, even when there’s nothing behind them. What the film lacks in terrifying imagery, it makes up for in atmosphere; it’s eerie, oppressive, seething with grief and sexual jealousy.
The cast work hard to sell both their characters and the situation, and it pays off: Sam Claflin is charmingly naïve and Olivia Cooke believably haunted, though it’s Jared Harris who steals the show. As the unconventional professor, he exudes a sleazy charisma that lets him make even the most bizarre argument seem perfectly reasonable.
There are some definite missteps along the way – the ‘teleplasm’ scene is less convincing than even the dodgiest Victorian spirit photograph, and there are a few stray lines of dialogue that betray the fact that many, many writers had a hand in this script. But it’s easy to forgive those flaws. Filmmaking itself is a kind of magic trick, as The Quiet Ones’ clever mix of traditional and documentary style footage acknowledges. No matter how many cameras you point at something, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever really understand how it works. Here, Hammer has taken a handful of stock elements – a haunted house, a creepy doll, and a troubled teenage girl – and turned them into something truly haunting.