“Ghosts are real,” begins Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, as the opening shot reveals Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) staring out of the screen in the snow, a cut on her cheek, with what appears to be blood on the ground. “That much I know.” And she does – flashing back to her childhood, we discover that as a child, Edith sees her first ghost in the form of her recently deceased mother. “Beware of Crimson Peak,” hisses the computer-generated apparition, but unfortunately the child seems too alarmed at the sight of dear old mum to put much stock in the warning.
Fast forward a few years later, and we see that as a young woman living with her doting father (Jim Beaver), Edith is sharp and self-possessed, preferring books to beaus, and is busy writing a ghost story. “Jane Austen died a spinster,” the women around her sneer, to which she replies coolly, “I’d rather be Mary Shelley and die a widow.” In the corner of the frame, a bland Dr Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, alarmingly miscast) watches with the all-too-familiar mixture of hope and uncertainty that his childhood love will be returned. Tough luck for Alan – in the very next scene, handsome penniless aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who has come to Buffalo in search of venture capital and an innocent bride, swoops in and proceeds to woo Edith.
The seduction – abduction, perhaps, would be a more apt word – is witnessed the entire time by Sharpe’s cold-eyed sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and against the objections of her father, Edith marries Thomas, who promptly whisks her away to the very place her dead mother warned her not to go. For good reason too: from the moment she steps foot in Allerdale Hall, the Sharpes’ ancestral home, Fernando Velazquez’s wonderfully eerie score begins to play, and one can practically feel the wraiths hanging about the place; plainly visible to Edith, they lurk behind closed doors, and waft up through floorboards. There are strange noises in certain closets, a child’s ball rolls into shot from nowhere explicable, and certain rooms are permanently locked, pronounced “unsafe”. The only thing more ominous than the dead, in fact, is the living: Sharpe and his sister are the real terrors here, as their numerous knowing glances at each other would suggest – if not to Edith, then to the surely exasperated audience.
Allerdale Hall, though, is where Crimson Peak shines: del Toro’s eye is as discerning as ever – this is, after all, the man who brought us Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) – and he does not disappoint. “I try to tell you a story with eye-protein, not eye-candy,” the director asserts, and indeed it is possible to gorge oneself on the lushly gothic beauty of the set. Red clay oozes up through the rotting floorboards, coating the walls of the basement. The hall inside the main entrance soars three stories, and because of the roof’s deterioration outside weather is free to enter: falling leaves, snow, rain. Fluttering moths crowd the walls, reminders of Mr. del Toro’s career-long preoccupation with insects of various sizes and dispositions. In short, Allerdale Hall is not only a masterpiece of design and conception (a worthy tribute to production designer Thomas E. Sanders) but also of execution. The attention to detail is, in a word, breathtaking.
The film’s brilliance also comes through in staccato snapshots, in stills that have tremendous power: Amidst the blacks and grays of a funeral, Hiddleston’s pale eyes stand out in stark relief. Edith is reduced from a self-assured young woman to a canary in a cage, an image beautifully evoked by costume designer Kate Hawley’s vivid yellow dress framed within the iron latticework of Allerdale Hall’s infernal lift. The gentle early morning sunlight slants in through the windows of a steamy bathroom to illuminate a man’s shattered skull, and the blood that oozes out from under it. Mr. del Toro, master of the old-school camera frame, demonstrates a powerful understanding of spatial relationships: when Edith embraces Thomas, his black coat takes up half the screen, and the camera makes sure to move to the side, to show her being slowly engulfed in darkness.
All this said, though, once all the visual delights have been stripped away, Crimson Peak is surprisingly weak.
Thomas says to Edith, “A house as old as this one, over time… It becomes a living thing,” and I would argue this point. Allerdale Hall does not breathe; it wheezes. It is a dying thing, and one in severe need of resuscitation, rather like this film. The subtlety, the hinting and teasing that effective horror films use to create terror, is nowhere to be found. Ghosts don’t sneak around. It’s not suggested that they may or may not be there – they are in your face and personal. Part of the blame also falls on the cast: one would expect Wasikowska, who shone in films with powerful psychosexual undertones (Stoker) as well as outrageously fantastical films (Alice in Wonderland) to excel in Crimson Peak, which is a combination of both. She has her moments, but falls flat most of the time. Likewise, Hiddleston’s Sharpe is both charming and predatory, but lacks the emotional depth that is vital for the character in the last act of the film. Jessica Chastain goes off the deep end in this film – and while it is mostly enjoyable to watch, particularly in the aforementioned last 30 minutes – there is a line between horror and camp. Chastain manages to tread this boundary, most of the time, but when she crosses it, it is not a mere slip of the foot: it is a gleeful, bodily hurl into the ludicrous.
One would also be forced to look far and wide for subtlety here; every metaphor hits with the delicacy of a sledgehammer. Crimson Peak is so named for the red clay in the soil that bleeds upwards. A massive exposition dump near the end of the film is wince-inducing – and unnecessary, as the plot twist, the deadly secret of the Sharpes, is evident from the first few scenes they appear together. (At the risk of sounding arrogant, I would like to say that I saw the twist coming from the trailer). At its worst, Crimson Peak has the subtlety of a freight train and felt downright silly at points – “This is a work of fiction, is it not? It’s quite good!” Sharpe says, having picked up two sheets of paper and looked at them for about two seconds.
Crimson Peak is not a movie made for box office grosses. It is too busy, and too ludicrous, and the suspense (crimson) peaks far too early on. It is, however, one of the most beautifully mounted films of the year – a sure contender for any and all awards in this category – and perhaps it would be prudent, in this case at least, to bear in mind Dejan Stojanovic’s wise words: “Do not look too far for you will see nothing.” In Crimson Peak, the furthest the audience should look ahead is the next scene.
By Atia Hanna binti Mohd Yazid