Crimson Peak (2015) ***½
I’m going to level with you. When the movies I review for a B-Masters roundtable seem weirdly off-model for the supposed topic, it’s usually because I didn’t have any investment in the theme that got voted in, but happened to have something that just barely fit it hidden somewhere in my pile of unwatched discs and tapes. (Yeah, I still have unwatched tapes.) This time is different, though. This time, I’m coloring outside the lines because the lines don’t show the whole picture, and because the missing bits are as important as the parts we can see unaided. There are more ways for a house to go bad, after all, than by becoming a haven for ghosts. And even where there are ghosts, the restless dead can be the least of the things making a particular house, hotel, theater, or Elks Lodge a Bad Place. That’s especially true in gothic stories on the 18th-century model, which are apt to treat ghosts as symptoms of human evil rather than as menaces unto themselves, even when the spooks are supposed to be real. Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is a film in that antique style, and the uncomprehending dismissal that greeted it from many quarters late last year suggested to me that someone needed to offer today’s horror fans a remedial crash course in Original Recipe gothic. That someone might as well be me, and I’m not going to be handed much better an excuse than a B-Masters roundtable on sinister real estate.
First, an important but easily overlooked point: del Toro wasn’t just being a genre snob when he told interviewers that Crimson Peak was not a horror movie, but a gothic romance. To make sense of that claim, though, we have to discard the baggage of our modern definitions, and look back to what that phrase would have meant circa 1790. “Romance” back then wasn’t merely a synonym for love story, although that was certainly part of what it meant. Rather, “romance” indicated a combination of the fantastical and the irrational, in which characters driven by larger-than-life passions performed larger-than-life deeds. The roots of the term lie in the late Middle Ages, when educational and edifying books were written in crusty and learned Latin, while the stuff that people read for fun was written in Romance— a catchall name for the post-Latin vernacular dialects that gave rise to Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. Stories of heroic chivalry were romances. Melodramatic narratives of love in defiance of social convention were romances. Exotic travelogues could be romances if the emotional pitch were high enough and the settings weird enough. And when the original gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, came along in 1765, with its spectral giant, haunted dungeon, and family curse, it was definitely a romance. Of course, The Castle of Otranto was also partly a romance in the modern sense, and subsequent writers like Clara Reeve, Ann Radcliffe, and Matthew Lewis placed increasingly heavy emphasis on that aspect as they refined the gothic formula from the 1770’s through the 1790’s. By the end of the century, the gothic had a more or less standardized story template in which an innocent and virginal heroine would marry her way into a corrupt noble family (usually after falling in love with its least visibly corrupt scion) and face all sorts of danger to life and virtue within the dank and probably haunted walls of her husband’s ancestral castle. That’s the kind of story Crimson Peak tells, too, as do all the films I’m reviewing for this roundtable. This movie stands out, though, for being far and away the most self-consciously backward-looking, and for placing much the strongest emphasis on the ghost story aspect.
Indeed, the first ghost actually puts in an appearance years before the heroine so much as lays eyes on the haunted manor. Edith Cushing (Pay the Ghost’s Sofia Wells at this stage of her development) is but a child when her mother dies of cholera, leaving her and her industrialist father (Jim Beaver, of Sliver and Mr. Murder) to look out for each other as best they can. Actually, no— that’s not quite right. Mom has one last bit of advice to impart from beyond the grave, but in the usual manner of spectral warnings, it’s unhelpfully enigmatic: “My child— when the time comes, beware of Crimson Peak!”
A decade or so later, in 1901, Edith (now played by Mia Wasikowska, from Rogue and Only Lovers Left Alive) is an aspiring writer, and old Carter Cushing is one of the most prominent men in Buffalo, de facto leader of an informal circle of bankers, builders, and manufacturers ushering their city proudly into the 20th century. As we rejoin Edith, she’s hurrying to an appointment with a publisher called Ogilvie (Jonathan Hyde, of Anaconda and The Mummy), who she hopes will buy her debut novel. Ogilvie leases office space in the same building as Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, from Children of Men and Pacific Rim), a friend of Edith’s who looks as though he’d like to be more than that someday. While waiting for the publisher (she’s fully an hour early), Edith encounters Alan, his mother (Leslie Hope, of Bruiser and Doppelganger), and his little sister, Eunice (Emily Coutts), the latter pair newly returned from a sojourn in Europe. The McMichaels are all atwitter over a man who took interest in Eunice while she was abroad. I mean, the American commercial aristocracy to which they and the Cushings belong is one thing, but surely it must count as a step up to be wooed by a genuine English baronet, right? Edith, however, is unimpressed with the news of Eunice’s idle rentier beau, and has in any case a more pressing concern at the moment. Ogilvie doesn’t care for her novel now that he’s had a closer look at it and its author, dismissing the book as a frivolous story by a frivolous woman, fit only to be read by others of her sort.
Edith is not to be defeated so easily, though. Instead, she sets about at once revising her novel, adding through gritted teeth the love story subplot recommended by Ogilvie and cannily deciding to type-write the new draft, so that her handwriting won’t give away her sex next time. No sense in smacking up against that glass ceiling until she’s built up the momentum to crack it. It happens that there are no typewriters in the Cushing mansion, so Edith begins spending her days at her father’s office, where she can have her pick of the things. And that’s where she is when Sir Thomas Sharpe, the Baronet of Allerdale (Tom Hiddleston), stops by in search of venture capital for a project that ought to be right up Carter Cushing and his circle’s alley. The baronet’s house sits atop a vast deposit of ferrous clay. Although practically liquid when it comes out of the ground, the iron content of the stuff is such that it becomes virtually indestructible once fired—just the thing for bricks or industrial tile. Efforts to mine Allerdale’s clay the old-fashioned way have never been economically sustainable, however; it’s like trying to tunnel through custard. Sir Thomas has therefore invented a steam-powered machine to do what shovels and pickaxes mostly can’t, but he lacks the money to build the thing for real. He’s hoping that’s where Cushing and his pals come in, but the latter are skeptical. For one thing, they hesitate to throw money into any project on no more basis than a proof-of-concept model. For another, there’s the fact that Sharpe has already been turned away by investors in London, Edinburgh, and Milan. But most of all, Cushing and his coterie of self-made men don’t care for effete foreigners with girl-soft hands coming around acting like they know the first goddamned thing about business. Edith, however, is more receptive to Sharpe’s ideas when she hears about them. Having just had her own ambitions checked by an arrogant businessman’s prejudices, she’s inclined to side against her father on this one— even though she herself expressed much the same attitude just the other day while chatting with the McMichaels. That’s right. Sir Thomas Sharpe is the baronet who paid court to Eunice overseas.
Now that Thomas has met Edith, though, he finds that he likes her better. It isn’t just his economic self-interest talking, either. He admires her writing, appreciates her wit, and most of all envies her readiness to defy convention and tradition. Those last two things have felt awfully oppressive to Thomas of late, with his empty title conferring only a failing family business and a falling-in house that can’t be repaired even if there were any money with which to attempt doing so. Edith, for her part, grows equally charmed with Thomas over the coming weeks, thrilled to be taken seriously by a man at last, let alone one who shares so much of her taste and temperament. Carter is disquieted by his daughter’s burgeoning romance, however, and not without reason. It is, after all, suspiciously convenient that Sharpe should fall in love with the daughter of a man whose financial backing he seeks. Beyond that, Thomas did not come to America alone. Traveling with him is his spinster sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, from Interstellar and The Martian), and there’s something ineffably shady about the way they act when they’re together— almost like they’re conspiring at something. Carter hires a detective (Pacific Rim’s Burn Gorman) to look into the Sharpes’ background, and what the PI finds is alarming enough that Carter actually pays Thomas and his sister to go away! Furthermore, he places Thomas under direct orders to break Edith’s heart in making his exit, so that she will feel no desire to pursue him. Otherwise Carter will tell Edith what he learned from the detective, and do it for him.
We’ve therefore got two obvious suspects when somebody murders Cushing in the bathroom of the club where he and his fellow fat cats hang out, arranging the scene to look like an accident. With the old man out of the way, Sir Thomas returns to resume his courtship of the grieving Edith, to such success that they’re soon married. Allerdale Hall comes as something of a shock to the girl, however. Thomas and Lucille had warned her that it was dilapidated and depressing, but that barely begins to cover it. Frankly, the place ought to be condemned and razed. And that’s before Edith meets the ghosts. Counting the phantom baby, Allerdale Hall is haunted by no fewer than five specters, and although they never do Edith any overt harm, they’re awfully aggressive with her. Edith knows her ghost lore well enough to recognize that that much haunting implies a house with a nasty history indeed, and once it becomes clear that she’ll get no satisfaction from Thomas or Lucille, she begins digging around for traces of that history as best she can. It seems, however, that something more than just the ghosts doesn’t agree with Edith in her new home. Almost as soon as she takes up residence in Allerdale Hall, her health takes a turn for the worse, so that she’s wasting away good and proper come wintertime. Meanwhile, Thomas is making alarming headway in spending Edith’s inheritance from her father (evidently his mining machine needed more refinement than he realized), and Lucille is growing downright malevolent in her dealings with her sister-in-law. And to think that all this might have been avoided if only the ghost of Mrs. Cushing had thought a decade ago to clarify that “Crimson Peak” was the local nickname of the hill where stands a certain English manor house, so called because of the blood-red muck that oozes up from the clay deposit below…
Crimson Peak is rather like a “greatest hits” compilation for the entire gothic super-genre. Guillermo del Toro very forthrightly samples from practically every relevant landmark work of the past 200 years. Allerdale Hall recalls “The Fall of the House of Usher,” tearing itself to pieces as it sinks glacially into the clay. The accusatory ghosts, although practically a universal trope at this point, are handled here so as to point straight at The Castle of Otranto. There are hints of Dracula in Crimson Peak’s thematic clash between modernity and atavism, as when a wax phonograph cylinder gives Edith the decisive clue to the mystery of Allerdale, or when her conversation with Alan about ghost photography establishes a “scientific” basis for the haunting. Del Toro juxtaposes The Monk’s gleefully grisly kink against The Old English Baron’s unabashed sentimentality— which is a bit of a mindfuck, since the latter novel is not merely sentimental, but almost comically prudish as well! Then, on a more modern note, Crimson Peak has a bit of Rebecca in Lucille Sharpe (who functions as Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca De Winter in one), a dash of Flowers in the Attic in the Sharpe siblings’ lurid back-story, and a surprisingly thick slab of Dragonwyck in its foregrounding of the gothic genre’s usually subliminal class assumptions, to say nothing of its plucky and pro-active heroine. That said, Edith is actually so resourceful as to push past any genre-appropriate antecedent to suggest a different sort of heroine altogether. You see that especially at the climax, which pits Edith against Lucille in a running knife-fight straight out of Friday the 13th. On the whole, however, del Toro has done with Crimson Peak about what he did with Pacific Rim two years earlier. First and foremost, it’s a nostalgic love-letter to an extinct genre.
Fortunately, Crimson Peak also resembles Pacific Rim in being an extremely strong example of something we haven’t seen in a long time. Del Toro’s attention to detail is as extraordinary as ever, as is his commitment to the idea of cinema as an integration of visual, plastic, and narrative arts. Not since Mario Bava’s 1960’s heyday can I recall a film that made such extensive, ambitious, and successful use of color, composition, and lighting as storytelling devices, and few other movies have ever made comparably adroit use of wardrobe and production design to convey story information. Some of this stuff is symbolic, which is common enough in theory. In practice, though, the window within which such symbolism is visible enough to do its job but not obvious enough to be twee and obnoxious is extremely narrow. Del Toro guides Crimson Peak through that window like it’s no big deal at all. Less ordinary and even more impressive in its quiet way is how del Toro encodes bits of back-story into subtle details like the scar on Lucille’s lip or the unappetizing appearance of the food she serves up at Allerdale Hall. The scar leaps to our attention at the first mention of her mother’s cruelty, and we know without having to be told that Lucille was never taught how to cook, because that was servants’ work; now that there’s no money for servants, she’s forced to shift for herself, and is doing none too good a job of it.
Where Crimson Peak shows del Toro’s true mastery, though, is in its layered, but never labored, character development. Edith is strong and self-willed, but always in ways that are believable within the social constraints of the turn of the last century. Carter Cushing is sternly patriarchal, but also warm and affectionate— and not once does he come across as tyrannical or domineering, even when he’s going behind his daughter’s back to sabotage her relationship with Thomas. Alan McMichael is both a man of science and a student of the paranormal, authentically seeing no inherent contradiction between the two. After all, if Arthur Conan Doyle (whose books Edith observes on the shelves in Alan’s office) could be both a physician and a member of the Ghost Club, why shouldn’t he have comparably eclectic interests? Alan also embodies an apt form of heroism for a film like this one, neatly splitting the difference between proper gothic day-saving and a slasher-influenced cavalry charge straight onto the point of the killer’s knife. As for the ones wielding the knives, well, you know how del Toro is with his villains. Even the nastiest of the bunch (the Fascist captain in Pan’s Labyrinth, for example) invariably turn out to be more complex than they look, and the Sharpes are no exception. Every horrible, atrocious, indefensible thing they’ve done in their lives stems directly from their love for each other, a motive which practically all of popular culture trains us to treat as inherently noble and above suspicion. And what becomes of each of them in the end is directly the result of how they respond to a chance to refine that love into something less destructive and consuming. One sibling is unable to rise out of the mutually defensive crouch in which they’ve spent their lives, while the other comes to understand that there’s an alternative to cowering together in their collapsing mansion, trusting no one but each other and raining bloody destruction on any perceived threat. In the best Guillermo del Toro tradition, however, a hopeful ending isn’t the same thing as a happy one. That more than anything might explain why Crimson Peak feels more like one of del Toro’s Spanish-language movies than any other he’s made in English so far.
This review is part of a B-Masters Cabal roundtable on haunted, cursed, possessed, or otherwise evil locations. Click the link below to tour the rest of this neighborhood of the damned.