Mark Reviews Movies

Crimson Peak


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman

MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:59

Release Date: 10/16/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 15, 2015

"The ghost is a metaphor," the aspiring-author heroine says after a publisher dismisses her most recent work as a horror story (before telling her she should add a love story and complimenting her handwriting). Despite that seemingly self-aware bit of intention-stating, the ghosts of Crimson Peak most certainly are not metaphors. They're terrifying apparitions of the skeletal remains of previously human forms, as if the process of decomposition has continued even in this limbo of existence, with flowing black or red mist swirling around them to form something akin to a cloak. We expect them to be frightening. We don't necessarily anticipate that they will be tragic.

This fulfills the first requirement of an effective ghost story. The ghosts aren't just convenient narrative devices to create opportunities for scares. There's a narrative logic to their existence here, and it's to imbue the air of menace with one of melancholy. The story here could have worked without phantoms, but their presence within the story heightens a certain mood that otherwise might not have been present (That still doesn't make them a metaphor).

The other requirement is that the ghost or ghosts need an appropriate locale to haunt. In this regard, Crimson Peak truly excels. We know what to expect here, as well: an old, dilapidated manor, typically of the Gothic style, sitting alone in the middle of some barren countryside, usually atop a hill or surrounded by marshlands. This film gives us those specifications, and then director Guillermo del Toro amplifies them to a nearly ridiculous extreme. This place, named Allerdale Hall, is like a living, breathing, and, grotesquely, bleeding thing.

The living part of course come from the manor's almost constant creaking and groaning, as it slowly but surely sinks into the loose ground beneath it, while the breathing comes from the array of holes in the exterior. The unencumbered wind of the wide land blows through them, although one, in the roof above the mansion's great hall, serves as an unintentional skylight, with autumnal leaves and pure snow falling amidst the beam of light that pours past the hall's cragged stairway.

As much a part of this atmosphere as the production design (by Thomas E. Sanders) and art direction (by Brandt Gordon) is Dan Laustsen's equally bold cinematography, which isn't afraid to bathe characters in mood-appropriate lighting. Our heroine often finds herself in an unnatural, blood-red glow, while another character of uncertain motives might contemplate his divided sense of loyalty in a gloomy bath of blue. This is that kind of film, or at least it tries to be of that kind. It is unafraid of grand, explicit gestures.

The bleeding part of the house is somewhat of a novelty, and with it comes as good an opportunity as any to mention the particulars of the plot. Our heroine is Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman from Buffalo, New York, who discovered she could see ghosts at the age of 10, when her recently deceased mother warned her to "Beware of Crimson Peak." Her father (Jim Beavers) is loving and protective—but only with good reason. He believes Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet from England looking for a financial investment in a mining machine, is one such good reason. He would much rather she consider the affections of Alan (Charlie Hunnam), the local ophthalmologist.

After a gruesome murder, Edith finds herself Thomas' wife and at her new home at Allerdale Hall in her husband's native country, where Thomas' sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) seems to be a greater threat than the ghost that resides there. The place also has a nickname, but you probably figured that out already. It obtained that name from the rare red clay upon which the estate was built. It comes up through the ground and seeps through the walls, giving the impression that the land and the house themselves are oozing blood.

The screenplay by del Toro and Matthew Robbins is going for that old-fashioned melodrama, featuring murders most foul, locked boxes possessing secrets, disease, poison, love of the genuine-but-tortured and unnatural varieties, and a whole string of mysterious events from the past yearning to reveal themselves in the present. It's easy to see what del Toro and Robbins are attempting with this material, difficult to really feel roused by it, and disappointing the film constantly seems ready to do away with propriety and to fully embrace its tendencies toward melodrama. There are moments and gestures here (a brisk waltz during which two lovers try to keep a candle from extinguishing, Edith's self-guided tours through the manor, and pretty much everything in the immediate buildup to the climax) that feel like promising steps, but something keeps it all restrained.

The restraints, it seems, come from the house and what it represents for the film. It is undeniably a great feat of design—elaborate in its details and overwhelming in the mood it creates. That's it, though. It exists solely to provide us with a thing that is equal parts sumptuous, dreadful, and awe-inspiring. There's something self-conscious in the film's aesthetics. The film desperately wants us to notice them—to notice just how beautiful and frightful a thing the manor is. That keeps everything else at a distance.

Still, the house is a sumptuous, dreadful, and awe-inspiring work of creation. That cannot be emphasized enough. That means Crimson Peak is worth a significant deal of admiration, even if that is primarily on its technical merits.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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