Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak trades straightforward horror in favor of a sub-genre that, up to this point, was mostly forgotten: gothic romance.
The horror genre has seen bewitching developments from the 2010s to the present day. Although scary movies can be looked down on because they’re cheap to make, many of these have been rebranded as “arthouse films” in the past decade. A24 is the most notable example of this with their catalog of freakish, obscure projects. Elevated horror is a relatively new term that was born from such films, used to describe scary movies that are more concerned with metaphors and strong narratives than easy jump scares. Yet, several cinephiles and filmmakers reject this notion because, for them, it feels like an excuse to take a side of horror seriously, while disregarding others.
Guillermo del Toro is one of those visionaries who have tried to make people see that horror is just as artful as any other genre for almost his entire career. We don’t refer to complex dramas as elevated dramas, they’re just dramas. Crimson Peak (2015) is almost too perfect of a film to help us navigate why we should take all corners of horror seriously and not label them as one thing or another.
Crimson Peak is set in the Victorian Era and revolves around a woman named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, Blueback) who yearns to be more than just a housewife. She’s an author who’s passionate about her literary works with the supernatural, even if most won’t give her the respect she deserves. Following her introduction to Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, Loki), an English entrepreneur who has a queer relationship with his sister Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain, Armageddon Time), she gets married to the mysterious outsider and moves into his mansion of Allerdale Hall after her father’s death. Here, Edith is haunted by ghouls and other strange beings who seem to be warning her of a fatal fate.
Arguably the biggest disservice this movie received is that it was wrongly marketed as a haunted mansion horror film. Perhaps Guillermo del Toro didn’t intend this to be the case, but the studio sure did because, after all, selling it as a straight horror would have gotten more people to watch it back then than if it was sold as a gothic romance. It’s funny how things change, because if Crimson Peak were to be released today, it is possible it would’ve gotten a better critical reaction now, since moviegoers have been exposed to more bizarre stories since then, and chances are it would’ve been labeled as elevated horror as well. Where 2015 audience members found the film too boring and not scary at all, I gather cinephiles today would be over the moon at the film’s symbolism and twisted romance. Ironically, Crimson Peak is a damn solid picture that, in a sense, depicts the sins of our past.
Crimson Peak might be del Toro’s most visually pleasing film to date. The large practical sets and lavish production and costume design work together well to establish the mood this story requires. The color red in particular is used to great effect as a means to blur a line between the red clay symbolizing the violent actions taking place in the mansion, which are directly connected to the reddish appearance of the ghosts themselves, and the twisted passionate romance present at the center of it all.
Where the film both shines and struggles is in its characters and structure. On one hand, you have the insanely fascinating Sharpe siblings who command every scene they’re in. Their strange relationship makes for some sick, fun reveals that don’t just serve as a gimmicky plot twist, but add an extra layer of oddness that only Guillermo del Toro could have pulled off. It helps that Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain are able to elevate their roles to impressive heights highs since, on paper, they’re rather simple antagonists whose motivations are predictable. Hiddleston’s charisma shines through and brings an earnest side to his character, while Chastain is genuinely intimidating.
Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same for the rest of the cast, not because they’re bad in it but because the script demands for them to not really portray any kind of change. Mia Wasikowska is quite good as Edith, as she brings to life an easy character to sympathize with. The problem is that her characterization is very uneven. For the first act we are presented with a firm, determined woman who is set on her goals. That is almost entirely abandoned once we leave for London and she’s replaced with a damsel in distress with a mind of her own. Both versions of the character are solid, but they don’t feel like the same person and it’s jarring to see. Then there’s Charlie Hunnam’s (Shantaram) Dr. Alan, who’s only here to serve as a plot device in the third act and nothing much beyond that.
Another issue is how the film is somehow both too smart and too dumb for its own good. Guillermo del Toro trusts its audience will be able to catch up with the movie through visual cues in the background and dialogue that may not seem relevant at first that does end up holding merit later on. All of this is great, but then it is paired with character decisions that don’t really feel natural. To add fuel to the fire, Edith nor Alan go anywhere by the end of this journey. Sure, they might be severely more traumatized, but there’s no real satisfying resolution to their arcs. The approach del Toro took with Crimson Peak to make the film accessible for some and rewarding for those who want to dissect its meaning is well-intended, but it would’ve been more effective if certain characters had been better written.
For everything Crimson Peak gets wrong, it gets two or three things right. It may not be scary, but it was never meant to be. There are creepy moments, yes, but never at the expense of what’s the main center of attention: the gothic romance. As you would expect from del Toro, the love story is all kinds of messed up. In a good way. The man has an excellent eye for human dynamics and even though there are characters we aren’t meant to be rooting for, del Toro’s direction and sense of urgency makes us care. The way you could view this romance is as the director’s test run for what he would perfect later on in The Shape of Water. It is sweet, yet off-putting. Beautiful, but tragic. It plays with the good old gothic romance tropes that we don’t see as much today. Although different in tone, Crimson Peak feels like a throwback to films in the sub-genre such as Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula.
Does Crimson Peak have its issues? Clearly, yes. What film doesn’t, though? There is nothing in Guillermo del Toro’s atmospheric gothic romance that utterly destroys the movie. If anything, there are more things that work here than don’t. Allow yourself to be immersed in this freakish world del Toro created. But remember, don’t expect a supernatural ghost story here. Those elements are present, but they are not the main focus. It is a tragic tale of two lovers being manipulated by the sins of the past. It ain’t a ghost story, but one with ghosts in it. The kind of ghosts we create with our own actions.
Crimson Peak is now available to watch on digital and on demand.