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Movie Review: Crimson Peak

By Douglas Davidson

October 15, 2015

Beware Crimson Peak. These are wise words for a movie that begins with the line, “ghosts are real. This much I know.” With dialogue like this, it must be October, with the spook-factor high in the cinemas as the tortured and tormented come out to play. This Friday, October 16th, writer/director Guillermo del Toro will unleash his highly-anticipated Victorian tale, Crimson Peak, featuring Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Charlie Hunnam, and Jim Beaver. Don’t let the posters, trailers, or teasers fool you. This is not some ghostly horror show intended to terrify and titillate. Rather, del Toro has crafted a modern meta/classic gothic love story/mystery with supernatural elements. So pay attention because, as they say, the devil is in the details.

Guillermo Del Toro poses in Beverly Hills, California, in this December 18, 2006 file photo. The filmmaker who was directing two movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" has stepped down after two years on the project amid studio delays and schedule conflicts. REUTERS/Chris Pizzello/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT PROFILE)
Writer and Director Guillermo Del Toro. Photo by Chris Pizzello

Our story begins and ends with Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the only daughter to New York industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). Edith is a budding writer with no desire to engage in social pleasantries or romantic entanglements. Due to a traumatic experience as a child, she believes in ghosts and wraps herself in the telling of stories. While typing her latest manuscript to send out for publishing, she meets Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is scheduled to meet with her father and other local investors about a red clay harvester he designed to mine the rich land his home sits upon. While Carter is unimpressed with Thomas, Edith is smitten and finds herself working on her manuscript with Thomas in his free time. When tragedy befalls Carter, Edith leaves New York for the Sharpe estate, Allerdale Hall, in England as Thomas’ new wife. As Edith attempts to settle into the Sharpe family home, things take a dark turn as she learns the walls are covered in mildew, the floors are rotting through, the ceiling is broken with snow failing down like the center of a snow globe, and the red clay beneath them is slowly swallowing them whole. No longer in the comfort of her family, friends, and the town she knew, Edith finds herself alone in a strange land, with only her new husband and sister-in-law for comfort. While Thomas works and his sister Lucille runs the house, Edith begins to learn that the mysteries of Allerdale Hall run as crimson as the clay.

For those of you unfamiliar with del Toro’s work, each scene is full of tiny details and Crimson Peak is no exception. Here, del Toro plays with conventions by playing the audience against itself through expectation and perception. What you see matters, but what you perceive matters more. For example, the film opens with Edith, her every breath echoing across the open air before we see her bleeding and visibly worn. She smiles slightly and then the story begins. Why? Edith herself, we learn, is a writer who uses ghosts in her stories as a means of representing the way the past haunts us. She believes in ghosts, telling the audience about her first experience with the spirit of her newly dead mother. She believes in ghosts, but not in love. Again, why does this matter? Edith, upon submitting her work, begins to adjust her story to the feedback from the publisher about including a love story. Soon she finds herself deeply enamored with Thomas. Coincidence? While spending time together, Lucille and Edith come across a caterpillar beginning it’s metamorphosis into its next stage of life. Lucille likens herself to the black moths native to her home and how they feed upon butterflies. Is this a threat or merely odd sister-in-law conversation? These are but a small portion of the information del Toro hides in plain sight, taunting his audience, challenging them to engage with the story and not remain a spectator.

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Being a spectator is an easy trap to fall into during Crimson Peak. When the film begins in New York City, there is a warm, almost sepia tone to the world, suggesting life, wealth, and warmth before the Sharpes enter Edith’s life. When things shift to Allerdale Hall, however, the world turns stark white or deep blue. Things at Allerdalle Hall are lifeless, desolate, and barren – the life that Thomas and Lucille have grown accustomed too. The only true color of Allerdale Hall comes from the red clay rising from beneath, seeping up until the grounds seem to run with blood. Though a bit on the nose, Allerdale Hall is known to the locals, we discover, as the Crimson Peak from which the Sharpes look over their land. Inside the house, numerous other little details pop up. The moldy, dank halls are covered in designer wallpaper that hides the mark of the black moth – surrounding and enveloping all who walk the halls. The center parlor is the only room with a fireplace and the flames swell every time the wind gusts through. Is it to create comfort within the drafty walls or to warn visitors not to get to close? Even Thomas and Lucille’s outfits are tight and dark – a statement of their lives? Only Edith wears white, cream, or gold – to signify her purity, though not her chastity. One area of solace within the seemingly dying home is Thomas’ workshop, where the dolls he’s created by hand to entertain Lucille are strewn about. Mixed among them are the other toys, trinkets, and designs of all the ideas that reside in Thomas’ head. It causes the audience to wonder what other wondrous items has Thomas designed. What else could he do if he didn’t try to save the house he loved so much? Much of the movie is about harnessing potential: the potential to raise the Sharpe name back to the status it once had. The potential for Edith to be the writer she desires. The potential for Thomas to create the life he so clearly wants to have.

None of this would matter, however, if the performances didn’t make everything believable. Hiddelston’s performance as Thomas is nuanced. He’s a gifted inventor and tinkerer and loyal to the core. Though his buttoned-up look and soft delivery suggests a loving and warm individual, his ease at deception makes him unnerving. Throughout the film, much like Carter Cushing, there seems to be something totally off about Thomas. We can’t figure it out – and many, I suspect, won’t want to – but as the clues are laid bare, Thomas’ innocent veneer quickly fades. In a class all her own, Chastain portrayal of Lucille is a tight balance between her role as the attentive loving sister and the underlining menace she threatens through tone and delivery. In one instance, her attempts at comforting a sick Edith, though the words are encouraging, suggest a darker malevolence at play. In contrast to the darkness of Lucille, Wasikowska’s Edith is the light in the room. She’s hopeful, inquisitive, thoughtful, and perspective. If Lucille is the black month, Edith is the butterfly. Though my prior experience with Wasikowska as the “little girl lost” seems in line with this character, Wasikowska creates a believable three-dimensional performance as a young woman who doesn’t deny her instincts. Once she recognizes that something is amiss and that secrets are being kept, she quickly finds ways to investigate the mystery she has found herself immersed in. Most impressively, if this were a standard horror film, then she does great honor to the “final girl” title, as it was nice to see her be able to plant her feet and not run scared. The only performance that took me out of the moment came from Charlie Hunnam as Dr. Alan McMichael. He is a childhood friend of Edith’s and clearly carries a torch for her, but he respects her enough to not get in the way of her choices. In terms of characterization, this part was excellent. But no matter how much I wanted to like the character, Hunnam just seemed stiff and unrealistic in both his actions and delivery. Though I’ve only seen him in one other film, his performance never seems deep or authentic, which, as the love-lorn doctor/ detective/hero, I needed to root for him and it was hard to believe he was truly capable. Though his role minor and appearance brief, honorable mention should go to Jim Beaver (Supernatural, Justified) as the much underused Carter Cushing. His casting was perfect as the stern and gruff, loving father, but it was difficult to believe that this deep southern-accented man worked his way up in New York during the late 1800s. Not that southern men didn’t work or live in New York, but there was something that felt very out of place. Once removed from the moment, as good as his performance is, it was hard to dive back into the story.

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Where this movie succeeds is in the details. Characters are multi-layered, and everything you see matters as the clues are hidden in plain sight. Guillermo del Toro has proven time and again that he can create visually stunning environments, but often his stories don’t always hold up beyond the spectacle of wonder he creates. Luckily, that is not the case here. Crimson Peak’s the visuals not only enhance the movie, but drive it. Practically from the start, the story is designed to be multifaceted and subversive to expectations. He knows you want to think this is a ghost story. He knows you expect to be terrified and expectant of where the jumps are and what the outcome with be. Herein lies the true delight of Crimson Peak: little is what it appears to be. By grounding the film in reality, while using the supernatural elements as narrative tools, del Toro is able to masterfully play with his audience. Don’t go in expecting the usual horror when you visit the Crimson Peak, but be careful who you fall in love with. Nothing is as it seems. Now go – Crimson Peak awaits.

In theaters nationwide starting Friday, October 16th.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5 

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