There is a scene in the movie where Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) asks Edith (Mia Wasikowska) to waltz with him, as other women glare at Edith in jealousy. “I’ve always closed my eyes to things that made me uncomfortable,” Thomas says. Edith replies: “I don’t want to close my eyes. I want to keep them open.” The two hold each other, hand-in-hand, and they begin to dance.
Are you paying attention? The movie is talking to you.
Crimson Peak wears its heart on its sleeve, immediately telling the audience everything it intends to do. Using dialogue to foreshadow plot elements, it knowingly teases its audience by subverting their expectations. As a result, each quip is loaded with dramatic irony. Other women ridicule Edith’s passion for writing: “Jane Austen died a spinster.” Edith easily retorts: “I’d rather be Mary Shelley. She died a widow.” Is this just an allusion to Frankenstein? Or some clever foreshadowing of the plot?
Crimson Peak begins in Victorian era America, where novelist Edith Cushing meets the enigmatic baronet, Thomas Sharpe. After the murder of her father (Jim Beaver), she marries Thomas and moves to England with him and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). There, the three live in the Sharpe manor: an isolated, decaying mansion oozing with red clay and dark secrets.
Through his filmography, it is easy to see the evolution of Guillermo del Toro’s iconic style. While not as gruesome as Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak is stylistically more elegant, featuring much wider shots and bigger sets. The haunted house of Sharpe manor, for instance, is completely handcrafted at a sound stage in Toronto. And as del Toro’s films grow in production value, they also become simpler, more direct. His movies are designed to be mainstream, palatable for any audience.
The movie also takes inspiration from the Italian horror flicks of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. After all, Crimson Peak is filled with Gothic horror themes, and saturated in rich, contrasting hues. The warm orange-brown of America is a stark contrast to the cold blue-grey of England. Edith’s bright dresses are juxtaposed against Lucille’s dark dresses. Red clay trickles down the walls and bleeds through the ground.
Of course, there are the critics. Many professional critics, such as Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun Times) and Michael O’Sullivan (The Washington Post), argue that the story is too one-dimensional, relying on cliches and tropes to fill the screen time. Well, they aren’t wrong. However, this kind of criticism is unfair. After all, del Toro isn’t trying to tell us a new story; he’s celebrating an old horror genre by updating the parts.
That beautiful CGI, am I right?
But what about the other critics? The horror fans and casual reviewers? It is fairly easy to sum up their collective criticism: Crimson Peak isn’t scary. And for the sake of argument, let’s pretend Stephen King didn’t say this after watching the movie:
What makes fiction scary? Personally, I think it’s all about expectation. People found Paranormal Activity scary because they thought it was a true story. Moviegoers wander their houses in fear, unaware that the movie isn’t even remotely true. Likewise, people were probably expecting Crimson Peak to be a stomach-churning ghost story, reminiscent of The Exorcist or Poltergeist.
But as Edith explains (when describing her own horror story), “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a story with ghosts in it. The ghosts are just a metaphor for the past.” Audiences feel betrayed at the lack of supernatural intervention. Ghosts merely function as a plot device, giving Edith hints to the murder mystery. But I feel this highlights how humans are the true monsters. People are willing to commit horrifying atrocities to protect the things they love.
Obviously, there’s a lot to be desired from Crimson Peak. The dialogue is pretty hokey, and the plot is paper-thin. But I can’t help liking the finished product. Maybe it’s because of the gorgeous set design. Maybe it’s the slick cinematography. Or maybe it’s those iris wipes. Ha!
Horror movies these days are frustrating to watch. Too many of them are “based on a true story,” and lack any sense of humour. Crimson Peak, on the other hand, abandons any pretense of realism. It’s amusing, often ironic, and refers to a time in cinema when horror was colorful and imaginative.
Here’s my advice: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” You might not see another horror movie like it for a long time.