There are creepy old houses, and then there is Crimson Peak.
The title manor of Guillermo del Toro’s Victorian-era bildungsroman suffers from decades of neglect and decay. The ceiling of the entrance hall has rotted away, so that leaves gently flutter onto the floor to mark the fall, snow to mark the winter. The walls have given up on any sort of inviting color, succumbing instead to various shades of stain. Officially called Allerdale Hall, the British estate gets its nickname from the fact that it rests on a field of red clay, which occasionally seeps through the floorboards during heavy rain.
Leave it to del Toro – the visionary behind Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy – to bring new levels of creativity to a horror staple like the haunted house. Crimson Peak is, if nothing else, a triumph of art direction and production design, an ingenious display of dark hallways, creepy candelabras and decrepit slipper bathtubs that mostly resemble a giant insect’s slimy maw.
Interestingly, we don’t get to Crimson Peak until a good ways into the film. Del Toro and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins begin their story in Buffalo, N.Y., where Edith (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a construction magnate, is struggling to establish her career as an author of ghost stories. (She’s told to model herself on Jane Austen, but she prefers Mary Shelley.) When Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a mysterious British baronet, arrives in town with his older, elegant sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), he shows an immediate interest in Edith’s Gothic prose. Against the wishes of her childhood friend and would-be paramour (Charlie Hunnam), Edith grows closer to Thomas and Lucille, eventually marrying him and movie to their family estate in England.
There is a reason Crimson Peak spends so much time establishing Edith’s literary aspirations. This is, at heart, the story of an artist’s journey. Having been visited by her mother’s ghost when she was a child (a beautifully chilling creation, made of spidery fingers and tendril wisps), Edith is, in a sense, following the dictum to write what you know. Yet if her stories lack real artistry, it is because she has not yet experienced true terror – at least not like the kind she will encounter at Allerdale Hall.
I can’t think of higher praise to give Chastain than to say that she goes full Mrs. Danvers.
Crimson Peak also functions as a retort to those who tell Edith that because she’s a woman, she should only write about romance. This specious advice is not only refuted by the narrative, but by the form of the film as well. Fans of del Toro may be surprised that its first third, for the most part, plays like straightforward if sumptuous period drama, complete with a stately waltz. Yet even this section is punctuated by little flourishes of horror (that ghost). Indeed, as Crimson Peak proceeds, it’s as if the movie’s “tastefulness” is repeatedly interrupted by bursts of genre terror. When the terror takes over in the movie’s gonzo climax, it feels at once like formalistic freedom and a personal artistic statement on Edith’s behalf.
Speaking of gonzo, I can’t think of higher praise to give Chastain than to say that she goes full Mrs. Danvers. Danvers, of course, was the diabolical housekeeper played by Judith Anderson in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca – a character you knew was up to no good the moment you saw her, but couldn’t have guessed the depth of her machinations. Chastain, similarly, keeps Lucille’s sinister nature on simmer, until the story calls for her to pour gasoline on it.
Hiddelston and Wasikowska – who previously struck a Gothic chord together in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive – are perhaps typecast, given that they both already appear to be part ghost. (One of the movie’s many laughs comes when the deathly pallid Thomas tells the equally fair Edith, “You seem so pale.”) Hiddleston brings just enough guilt to his performance to lend it a certain, sympathetic tremulousness, while Wasikowska undergirds her ethereal physical presence with an indomitable strength. Edith will undoubtedly be scarred when she leaves Crimson Peak. But she’s going to write a heck of a book.