You’ve never seen a haunted house like this one. It doesn’t simply creak at night; the east wind howls through it with deafening force. There are no leaks in the ceiling but there is a giant hole directly above the main foyer. Snow falls as if it has been invited. The water from the faucets looks like blood. It’s not though. The house sits on top of a clay mine, you see, and this particular clay appears quite red. Sometimes it leaks through the walls. There are moths everywhere, carnivorous ones that show off no pretty colors. The opulent staircases and hallways appear to lead everywhere and nowhere and, like everything else in the house, they hold secrets. The lower level is particularly dangerous. That’s where the rendering vats for the clay are. Don’t worry though, they only contain clay. No bodies. The clay tends to seep up through the ground though, staining the snow outside. Oh, and the house itself is sinking into the mine. Has been for decades. It’s happening slowly but, one day, the entire structure will be underground.
This is Allerdale Hall, the setting for director Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece, Crimson Peak. If everything else in the movie were terrible, if the characters were unlikeable, the performances wooden, and the suspense non-existent, I might still recommend the film for the house alone. It is a marvel to behold. The production design is immaculate. The sets are so intricate that I could spend hours staring at just them. Nothing in the house feels safe or welcoming but each room and hallway has a sense of beauty to it, like a lullaby that lulls you into a sense of peace before assaulting your eardrums. Del Toro spends a good hour building up to the arrival of Allerdale Hall. When a carriage leads our two main characters through the iron gates and that structure looms in front of the camera like a mountain, we catch our breath and revel in the fact that we are in the hands of a master.
The occupants of the carriage are Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his newfound wife Edith (Mia Wasikowska). They’ve only just arrived from America. Thomas’ sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is there to greet them. She’s cold and odd, to say the least, and balks when Edith asks for her own set of keys. “There are portions of the house that aren’t safe,” she tells Edith, “take your time exploring and then I’ll have a set of keys ordered.” That feels as much like a promise as it does a threat. But naive Edith doesn’t see the danger coming. She’s too gobsmacked by love to feel anything but a sense of happiness and hope. For a little while anyway. It’s not long before ghosts are plaguing her day and night and long buried secrets are threatening her existence.
This is nothing new for a haunted house movie and the twists and beats of the story are not hard to predict. If you’ve seen the trailer, you can more or less guess what happens. This is not a movie about plot but about mood. And the mood Del Toro is interested in evoking is one of gothic romance and classic horror. Crimson Peak owes more to Rebecca than it does to The Shining. Take the courtship between Thomas and Edith. It happens in minutes, through grand gestures and bold pronouncements. He invites her to a dance and they perform a waltz in front of a shocked crowd. The crowd is stunned because Thomas is holding a candle in his hand and has promised that it will not extinguish if they move swiftly and gracefully enough. It’s a gesture that is both romantic and silly. The scene could have easily become pretentious or lapsed into parody but it’s presented with such genuine sincerity by the filmmakers and performers we can’t help but be swept up by it. Isn’t that true of a lot of the classic films of the 40’s and 50’s? You watch them while acknowledging that the dialogue is overwrought and the performances far too grand, but you get sucked in by them anyway. Such is the case with Crimson Peak.
I’m sure many people will dismiss the movie as being excessive or they will say that it is simply ‘too much’. They are missing the point. This is a film that exists in a world completely lacking in subtlety or restraint. The characters, like the house, are bold, decadent, passionate, mysterious, and larger than life. There’s a scene early on where Edith, a budding horror novelist (nice touch), runs into a group of women who look down on her. I half expected them to burst into song, chanting something along the lines of, “look there she goes, that girl is strange but special.” And you know what? If they had, I would have been fine with it. It would have fit with the tone of the film completely. Del Toro isn’t trying to spin the gothic romance on its head or add a modern twist to it. He simply wanted to create a film of his own that would have felt right at home on a double bill next to Notorious or The Haunting. He succeeds in spades.
What he does add is a level of violence that wasn’t present in the films he’s emulating. That may sound cheap but it isn’t. The violence is shocking and gruesome, yes, but fits right in with the excess of the rest of the movie. If the house, costumes, and characters are going to be gloriously over the top, then why shouldn’t the violence be too? Bear in mind, this is not an excessively gory movie. The few scenes of blood and guts are earned. It’s mostly focused on dread and the fear of what might be coming around the corner, be it human or supernatural. The film’s ghosts are frightening, dripping with blood and smoke, but are they there to harm or there to warn of harm? It won’t take a genius to figure out the answer.
Indeed, that will be a problem for many people. This is not a difficult movie to figure out and I predicted how it would end about five minutes into it. The performances, writing, and direction all telegraph what is to come. Once again though, that is not the point. When you’re watching an opera, do you care about what will happen next or what twist will be revealed? Of course not. You care about hearing the beautiful music. That’s what Del Toro is crafting here. He’s the conductor of a symphony we’ve heard before but rarely with such polish and grace. He’s aided by his actors, who may give away too much at times, but that’s because they’re playing to the rafters. Wasikowska is a wonderful leading lady, strong, relatable, and humorous. Hiddleston doesn’t try to channel Olivier and instead creates a wholly original man who is tormented, romantic, and vile, frequently all at the same time. Chastain has the time of her life here, in a role that Bette Davis or Joan Crawford would have played, and she strikes just the right notes of malice and rage without becoming a figure of ridicule. Even Charlie Hunnam, as the noble childhood friend of Edith, fares well. His character is somewhat boring and oh-so-noble, but that’s what the role calls for and Hunnam doesn’t deviate from it. Still, the presence that comes through the most and has the most effect on the audience is that of Del Toro. His passion and love for this project can be felt in every single frame. This makes the film’s more obvious and absurd moments still affecting simply because the person behind them fully believes in what he is doing.
I’ve long been an admirer if not a fan of Del Toro. It’s hard not to like the guy. I mean, look at him, he’s a big ol’ happy teddy bear who loves telling stories and shares my passion for the macabre. I always want to like his movies because of his energy and enthusiasm but frequently find them lacking. Pan’s Labyrinth had scenes of real visual splendor and a wonderful heart but was ultimately sunk by the weight of a one-note and completely over-bearing villain. The Hellboy movies have imagination and wit but lack compelling characters. Mimic is a decent monster movie but not much more than that. Pacific Rim had inventive, entertaining action scenes but since there were no characters to care about, they didn’t amount to much. I’ll always like Blade 2 despite it’s
questionable awful CGI and narrative problems. His best film remains The Devil’s Backbone, a haunting, resonant ghost story with real characters, moral points, dark history, and terrific suspense. Crimson Peak is not quite as good but it’s damn close. Hitchcock used to say that he wanted to ‘play the audience like a piano’. Del Toro plays the audience like an out of tune organ with bones for pipes.