“It’s not a ghost story, it’s a story with ghosts in it” explains the character of Edith Cushing (played by Mia Wasikowska) when describing a book she is writing in Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s latest project. Clearly a meta-inspired stamp on the film, which dabbles between the genres of horror and mystery, but one thing is evident, Crimson Peak is not a horror movie, but rather a tragic romance with some spooky moments.
What makes this revelation quite surprising is that marketing ahead of Crimson Peak’s release has been as cryptic as an angry girlfriend’s silence, full of mysterious innuendos and secretive teaser trailers (the movie, not the girlfriend). With even the plot still being relatively unknown, you realise exactly why this was the case when you sit down to watch the film.
From the get-go, Crimson Peak thrives on the unknown, putting the audience on the side of the outsider trying to work out exactly what in the world is going on. The movie screams Del Toro’s brilliant gothic and steampunk-inspired design, and it’s gorgeous, but the narrative direction is a big departure for the Hellboy and Pacific Rim director.
The story is reminiscent of an Emily Brontë-esque Wuthering Heights family drama, mixed with a shot of Shakespearean tragedy, and a dose of Del Toro nightmares.
Edith lives in Buffalo, New York in the last days of the 19th century. She’s a writer, but no one takes her stories with ghosts in them seriously, even as she passionately explains that the ghosts are metaphors. Into her frustrated life swoops the tall, dark and handsome Sir Thomas Sharpe, looking for money to build a machine that can extract the red clay from beneath his decrepit ancestral home in England and return his family to the aristocracy. He dances with her, he enjoys her writing and he proposes to her. When Edith’s father dies in a brutal… accident, she goes off with him and his mysterious sister, Lady Lucille, to live at Allerdale Manor, deep in the moors of Northern England.
It is there that Edith begins to realise something is amiss, and as she explores the dilapidated mansion – there is a giant hole in the roof through which leaves and snow constantly fall, and the red clay beneath the house seeps up through the floorboards like thick, oozing blood – she uncovers ghastly secrets about the Sharpes and their history. Trapped miles from civilization she has the creepy siblings on one side and grotesque, screeching ghosts on the other.
Besides the unbelievable production design, the stars of the show are really the stars. Tom Hiddleston excellently plays a brilliant and warm aristocrat who has a dark side. His portrayal is so endearing that the haunting revelations throughout the film make his character even more disturbing and odd, and that’s a fantastically unsettling thing to witness.
Wasikowska is also incredible in her scenes; even some of the difficult ones where she explores the mansion on her own. She had us mesmerised from the onset. And Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe (the sister of Hiddleston’s character) is disturbingly malevolent and unrecognisable, not in her appearance, but just how damn dark and twisted she can be.
Del Toro has created a breathtaking movie that isn’t for everyone, but any fan of his horror aesthetic will find something to love, and the deep fantastical yet grounded story will allure those looking for something a little more metaphorical. Crimson Peak is a destination we were happy to be drawn to.