I Really Like Crimson Peak!
by Kristin Battestella
Struggling writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is quickly infatuated with Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) when the English baronet comes to Buffalo seeking investment in his proposed clay mining machine from Edith’s wealthy father Carter (Jim Beaver). The elder Cushing is skeptical of Sir Thomas and his stern older sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and Edith’s childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) also hopes to protect her from the Sharpes – even after Edith marries Sir Thomas and moves to the dilapidated Allerdale Hall. The Sharpe family estate is sinking into its clay making hopes, turning the snow red and making for some suspicious bumps, creaks, and groans in the night. The gifted Edith, however, can see the ghostly inhabitants of the so called Crimson Peak, and the phantoms help her unravel the mysterious secrets surrounding Thomas and Lucille’s gruesome family history…
A Gothic Throwback
My fellow horror enthusiasts know I had high anticipations for writer and director Guillermo Del Toro’s (Pan’s Labyrinth) latest film Crimson Peak for more than a year. Those horror aware also know the genre is quite diverse, with welcoming room for an R rated, sophisticated, Neo Victorian picture hearkening back to a Gothic Hammer glory. Unfortunately, it seems 21st century audiences are having trouble accepting Crimson Peak defined as a Gothic romance – perhaps due to both our limited perception of horror and a misrepresented modern romance genre. Today, romance publishers and big box bookstores categorize to meet readers’ expectations of escapism and happy ever after endings, and that’s certainly well and good for lighthearted literature fans. If you are looking for a tragic love story, however, you won’t find such Bronte bleak of old on the Harlequin shelf. Fortunately, Crimson Peak embraces this dark romanticism onscreen, filling the void where studios like nuHammer have faltered. Is Del Toro the new Bava ala The Whip and the Body? Who is the next Corman with a star like Price and a source like Poe? Television is catching on to the innate no cellphones and lack of technological convenience scares in this kind of period horror, where hours can be taken for the pot boiling macabre instead of the jump scare gimmicks a minute now expected in today’s formulaic horror movies. Classic horror heavyweights like Alien or Psycho know how to provide crossover appeal alongside an escalating slow tingle – and leave creepy memories long after the story ends. Have we forgotten how to watch the simmering scares from fifty years ago? Poor Guillermo has to repeatedly predicate that Crimson Peak is a Gothic romance every time he talks about it, and the faster audiences realize we need this kind of quality throwback horror the better.
Crimson Peak is spooky, sure, but that doesn’t mean it will be a modern by the numbers slasher – a relatively recent horror style compared to the tawdry Victorian melodrama likewise found in Penny Dreadful. Heck, an American heiress with a hefty dowry is so Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers it’s downright Downton Abbey. The slightly unreliable narrator bookends in Crimson Peak allow for dime novel embellishment complete with a halo of light when the tall, dark, and handsome stranger enters and a sweeping sunlight backdrop for the first kiss of a whirlwind romance. Gasps over a shocking waltz, a scandalous slap at a dinner party, somber siblings obviously up to no good, a ridiculous “By the time you read this, I will be gone…” letter – the soap opera framework in Crimson Peak is not meant to be a surprise. If Crimson Peak was supposed to be a terror a minute horror movie meeting current expectations, the final half hour of perilous, slice and dice, house mazes and pursuits would have happened much sooner, eliminating everything before Edith crosses the threshold at Allerdale Hall. Instead, most of the shock scenes and scary moments in Crimson Peak were erroneously revealed in the trailers (more on that later), and the spoon fed, sheep viewing mentality of brainwashed American viewers blinds us from Crimson Peak’s pay attention to detail requirements. Here murderous intentions, gory deaths, period accessories, marital unease, discomforting familial twists, and an increasing sense of household dread break the accustomed. Crimson Peak is set in 1901 – the real shock here is why anyone ever thought a Victorian piece was going to be like a contemporary splatter-fest. I don’t expect millennials to love old Mexican horrors such as The Witch’s Mirror or The Curse of the Crying Woman, but my goodness, hasn’t anybody seen a Vincent Price movie?!
Edith Cushing herself reiterates her manuscript isn’t a ghost story but a story with ghosts in it. She balks at the idea of including a love subplot just because she is female, would rather be a widow than a spinster, and although she is an incredibly observant writer, Edith is not exactly street smart when it comes to people. Mia Wasikowska is delightfully wide eyed to open Crimson Peak, a Jo March dreamer unfulfilled in her big house with servants, progressive gaslight, and new automobiles. Edith knows nothing of love, ignores her father’s warnings, and stupidly falls for the first baronet who bothers to read her story. She is manipulated by the Sharpes from the start and is too swept up to care when Thomas’ love letter arrives. Granted, the character is an audience avatar, as Edith herself doesn’t realize she is backed into the corner of a proverbial horror movie until the final act. Some viewers may even perceive her as starting smart but becoming cliché once she reaches Allerdale Hall. However, Crimson Peak shows Edith gaining practical experience for her literary license for the first time in her life. We may have more clues about the situation then she does, but there is an audience joy in seeing her piece together the spooky mystery with some fantastic help and ghostly metaphors. It’s no coincidence that the star of Jane Eyre is cast here in Crimson Peak, and Wasikowska has both the period poise and ingenue naivete needed to anchor all Edith’s facets. Viewers may not have expected an empowering female path of discovery in Crimson Peak, but Edith blossoms from worrying about if her handwriting is too feminine to taking matters into her own hands. She faces her phantom fears, explores Allerdale Hale for her own revelations, takes charge in her marital life, and defends herself when her new husband and sister-in-law aren’t the family she thought they would be. Brava!
Likewise, the dark haired Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) is the delightfully Mrs. Danvers villain of Crimson Peak. Lucille has spent most of her life in Allerdale Hall’s attic, festering and hording from childhood to adult, appreciating the looming bugs in the manor and dressing like a dated matching décor to the collapsing dwelling. Even Lucille’s pointy, medieval-esque cloak matches the spires of Allerdale Hall when she is apart from it! Past abuses suggest she bore the brunt of her father’s wrath and had to remain strong in caring for her ill mother – but unfortunately, Lucille has taken her stalwart to extremes and she enjoys it. As the older sibling, she took her brother under her ignoble wing, nurturing a warped maternal instinct. Her calculated way of cooking, pouring tea, and serving porridge with a scraping spoon has been wound up one too many times a la Suspicion, and Lucille is one night away from flinging the pots – or worse – if any Notorious keys are out of her control. In her eyes, she has witnessed, endured, and personally ensured the family legacy enough times to be the lady of the house – and maintains her sociopathic control by plucking the wings from butterflies who come too close. Lucille has earned her title and takes Crimson Peak with her via the hefty, binding red gown symbolic of the blood she has shed for Allerdale Hall. We hurt the ones we love the most, right? Insect ensigns, poisoning inside and out, and a devouring hierarchy reflect Lucille’s twisted idea of love, and this is an impressive, commanding, in charge turn by Chastain. Lucille objects to the blonde, young, and vibrant Edith, taking her innocent, sisterly affection as a foreign threat to her domineering establishment. This is her own trapped, repressed, playing house little world – Lucille has everything to loose and will do anything to keep her status quo. She may be lonely and wanting of love, but when we finally see Lucille’s room, her almost scientific collection, and justified in her own mind do what must be done actions, it’s a scary, gut wrenching finale with no cheap jump shockers needed.
In retrospect, it’s understandable that the predatory sexy crawl so prominently displayed in the Crimson Peak trailers was trimmed, as Sir Thomas Sharpe is not a strong male, but instead sways like a child with whichever way the dominating women in his life tell him to be. This is not Victorian Loki or a mischievous master manipulator; Sir Thomas is a meek follower wearing a dreamy, too good to be true facade as it suits his sister’s plans. He knowingly reads Edith’s story and plays into her sweeping ideals – foreshadowing a turnabout conflict and the heavy choices to be made if he would but accept his part in this play. Thomas may be charming, but his engineering dreams, stunted adolescence, and misplaced loyalties keep him small and easily corrupted. He has been molded like the very clay he is trying to harvest and his idyllic attempts to improve Allerdale Hall only perpetuate his out of touch, leaving him in his high up but still sinking workshop playing with symbolic toy marionettes. His top hat is too big for him, borrowed and behind the times. His sister has the house keys and rules the roost, and he’s okay with that routine – until Edith. Soon Thomas realizes that his inventions may not save Allerdale Hall, he is deluded by the price he pays to keep Crimson Peak, and now there could be a brighter future elsewhere. He admires Edith’s creativity and genuine put on the page, however, when he shouts that she is sentimental, weak, and knows nothing of life and real love, is he really angry at himself? Yes, Thomas is sympathetic, but the explanation behind his character arc doesn’t make him any less culpable for his actions. He may question, but backs down and does what he’s told – clueless on how to craft change. Despite the scene chewing in Crimson Peak, Hiddleston is superb in using his eyes and stolen glances to show Thomas’ inner turmoil and emotional spectrum – feelings the baronet himself probably doesn’t know how to express. Too late he accepts his own accountability, maturing only after he realizes what real love with Edith is like compared to the monstrous of Crimson Peak. Ironically, audiences going into Crimson Peak with starry eyes and Marvel comparisons may be missing Hiddleston’s finely layered and nuanced character discovery. I personally enjoy his unrestricted, non-Disney/Marvel pushing the envelope serious more, and unlike most modern actors, he looks delicious in period garb. For Crimson Peak, his Peter Cushing Force is strong, and I’d love to see Hiddleston be this century’s go to period horror star – or you know, a young Grand Moff Tarkin in a Star Wars prequel!
I’m less familiar with Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam, but his accent and hairstyle feel too 21st century out of place in Crimson Peak. Some viewers may find Alan behaves too stupidly for supposedly being such a smart doctor and feel the character wooden and superfluous all together. However, rather than being the solid fourth corner of a leading quartet, Dr. McMichael is fittingly reserved as a solid supporting role and sounding board workhorse. Alan provides exposition, information, or choice as needed to advance Edith’s story while serving as a one-sided, would be romantic antagonism as the plot requires. Edith is not interested in the good doctor as anything more than a friend – she is initially unaware he is back in Buffalo and doesn’t send him follow up letters from England – but the virtuous blonde trying to be a hero trope must be present to counter the dark and mysterious stranger nonetheless. In films of old we could balk at such a stereotypical strong chinned insert, but rightly motivated as he may be, Alan isn’t always successful in his deeds, making room for a few surprises and more gender reversal in Crimson Peak. Likewise Jim Beaver (Supernatural, Deadwood) is superb as Crimson Peak’s period piece patriarch. With his staunch ideas on tough work versus easy aristocracy and protecting his daughter’s chances for a respectable match – not a career with a typewriter – he’s still living in the last century. Unlike the Sharpes, however, Carter’s motivations, cautions, and affection are well placed with hard evidence and get out of my town demands. Despite his gruff exterior and seemingly harsh actions, everything Cushing does is in tenderness for his daughter as an extension of his legacy. Women of this era were controlled by the male nearest them, and Edith is supposed to stay young and innocent and take care of him until he chooses, correct? Beaver’s final scene is wonderfully well done – gruesome, suspenseful, immediately visceral, and most effective. Not to mention the newfangled pen he gifts Edith comes in handy for more than just literary pursuits!
A Lavish Attempt
Crimson Peak excels with its splendid look, lush costumes, and freaky ghost effects with a score both whimsical with possibility to start and ominous orchestral to match the colorful Dickensian on acid design. Meant to represent blood on the hands, manifestations of worse human horrors, and linger as symbolic wallpaper rather than be a scary antagonist, the ghosts of Crimson Peak mirror the titular clay and sinking family home, struggling to crawl and keep afloat as they woefully lend a hand. Early photography with phantoms captured in the negative also parallels this unfinished business while vintage typewriters, gramophones, round spectacles, and dangerous elevators accent the turn of the century setting. Opening and closing iris wipes marking each chapter hearken to the early horror film making industry to come, too. While Edith is adorned in flashy soon to be Edwardian designs, the Sharpes are notably dressed in the previous generation’s older Victorian fashions to indicate how their living in the past has outlived any usefulness. Lucille’s dress is of dead leaves and moth motifs – a perpetually bitter autumn with tattered, frayed trims compared to the sparkling butterfly combs in Edith’s hair. Part of the fun in watching Crimson Peak is looking for the butterflies in Edith’s scenes, and I love the slightly cthulhu ring on the ladies. Fittingly, the fancy frocks are stripped down by the end of Crimson Peak – raw nightgowns and simplicity reflect the film’s color progression from a golden patina to sinister blue, sickly green, and finally, a black and white snowscape with shocks of red clay and blood spilled. Whatever else audiences may think of Crimson Peak, the visual achievements and stunning design of the fully built and beautifully realized Allerdale Hall with all her nooks and crannies are certainly deserving of technical recognition and awards. Yes, I would live there!
Of course, that’s not to say that Crimson Peak isn’t without any flaws. The pacing is odd with perhaps too much of the early, over the top but rushed period drama and a wavering timeline. The Sharpes have been society entertaining for long enough to be known and friendly to the McMichaels, implying they have planned their groundwork carefully. However, in a century sans internet, Carter Cushing’s investigation happens way too fast. Mercenary pinkertons, the new Google! Return passage to England is largely skipped, but a map overlay like Indiana Jones or a Demeter type ship montage may have helped anchor the weeks in between what appears to be a very fast funeral and wedding – a throwaway sentence mentioning a supposedly respectful mourning wait doesn’t say enough. The duration at Allerdale Hall is also unclear, with Edith left alone, ignored, and free to explore for what seems like days. How long do the Sharpes’ plans usually take? Medical ills or miraculous heals come and go as needed, and travel in the snowstorm is conveniently easy for one on foot or difficult for a carriage as the plot requires. Again, maybe these time jumps are meant to be part of the Victorian manuscript play within a play melodrama at work, and a certain amount of rapid soap opera time can be forgiven. Though the near two hour time is pleasing, some poor editing leaves important backstory and family history unclear and most likely left on the cutting room floor, and ironically, the practical ghost effects alone look better than the CGI bells and whistles they receive. Hopefully, we’ll have plenty of deleted scenes and making of treats on the video release! The over the top moments here are enjoyable, too, but Crimson Peak can be inadvertently humorous at times, compromising the slow burn mystery and sinister brainwashing calculations with a false tame. A dangerous mining machine is also shown injuring someone but becomes a non-factor later, and if audiences are taking the ghosts at face value rather than metaphorically, the specters can seem convenient or even unnecessary. There’s enough suspense when Edith finds evidence on her own, and if one ghost can tell her to “Beware of Crimson Peak,” then why can’t the recently late ghosts with all the facts do the same? Indeed, several layers, why fors, and character biographies that should have remained to strengthen the somewhat thin script with meaty dialogue for the on form cast instead seem relegated to online content and companion literature. This annoying supplemental trend is only made more frustrating when the trailers, clips, and behind the scenes footage reveal glimpses of those extra moments that didn’t make it into the film.
But Marketing Amiss
I confess, Crimson Peak is one of those rare films where I’ve started my review document before seeing the picture, largely due to my thoughts on the sometimes genius but mostly overkill and misfiring marketing campaign. Despite my attempt to avoid spoilers, there was still too much “I see what you did there” online promotion with crafty gifs and the sharing of fan art on Crimson Peak’s official instagram and tumblr media. Twitter question and answer hashtags with cast and crew repeated amid an infinite number of five minute or less interviews and press days where every reporter asked the same trite sound bite questions. For those times when watching Hiddleston interviews is like a potato chip and you can’t watch just one, it was a surprisingly obvious but shrewd move to play the Crimson Peak ads on Youtube before this related content. Along with all the television spots and billboards, there are Crimson Peak books, calendars, perfumes, and even jewelry on the Home Shopping Network. These efforts, however, generally cater to young viewers expecting cheap horror slashers and jump scare frights, belying that Crimson Peak is a Gothic romance more about the dread and macabre of old. Naturally, this audience was miffed when Crimson Peak deviated from the anticipated formula presented in the trailers, and the erroneous mass appeal horror marketing backfired with a fifty percent box office fall in the second release week because movie goers told their friends that they were promised one film but were given something else instead. Unfortunately, the millennial viewing public should also be Hello Mcflyied for tweeting spoilers as they happened on opening night – I’d hate to see The Sixth Sense released today! If Crimson Peak had half as many clips and dropped either the twitter or tumblr teasing but kept the Crimson Peak Awaits online game, enough mystery as to what it actually contained within would have lured just as well as the marketing deception. Then, the campaign becomes an interactive discovery with out of context clues and photos that don’t give away all of Crimson Peak’s secrets – or abundant spoon fed misinformation – and if you want more, why, here’s the film itself!
Crimson Peak is how Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows should have been, but sadly, because of the poor marketing and unjustified but underwhelming audience return, the potential for more old school horror films like Crimson Peak may have been irrevocably squashed. As to my first Wednesday morning cinema experience, there were only a few other people attending. There were more on a second Monday afternoon, but really, the cell phone lights going off and being checked every five minutes? Let it go. Despite a ridiculous twenty minutes of trailers eating into the actual movie time, some such as Star Wars, Victor Frankenstein, and Krampus are cinema-going worthy. Spoilers, mismarketing, and the contemporary inability to go into a picture cold aside, Crimson Peak has more than enough revelations locked up in its attic to enjoy – and more than once for full effect. There is definitely an overlooked audience for this kind of Phantom of the Opera meets Jane Eyre not Saw film to whom the industry should be happy to cater. I want to see Crimson Peak again and can’t wait to have it on video if only to do a drinking game every time someone says “Cushing.” Sure, viewers may be disappointed that the paranormal in Crimson Peak is not paramount and often predictable. Fortunately, it’s easy to get over any period piece viewing problems or uneven editing flaws thanks to a refreshingly adult approach, oh no she didn’t melodrama, and splendid gasp inducing macabre carried by the haunting visuals and spirited ye olde performances.