In his introductory essay, “Haunted Castles, Dark Mirrors,” to American Supernatural Tales, del Toro says;
When I was a child–roughly seven years old–I started purchasing and collecting fantastic literature…
The discovery of the horror tale at such an early age was fortuitous for me. This sort of tale serves, in many ways, the very same purpose as fairy tales did in our childhood; It operates as a theater of the mind in which internal conflicts are played out. In these tales we can parade the most reprehensible aspects of our being: cannibalism, incest, parricide. It allows us to discuss our anxieties and even to contemplate the experience of death in absolute safety.
And again, like a fairy tale, horror can serve as a liberating or repressive social tool, and it is always an accurate reflection of its time and the place where it gets birthed (xiv-xv).
I’ve been noticing mixed reviews of Crimson Peak and, after seeing it, I can understand why. I enjoyed the movie but I also read a lot of gothic literature, from Poe to Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft. This movie has the feel of a 1960s gothic horror, with lots of supersaturated colors and lush settings. It’s not the fast-paced hour-and-a-half of jump scares that the Paranormal Activity series and pretty much anything that Blumhouse makes, that people are used to.
Del Toro goes further back in time than he did in The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, back to turn of the century Buffalo, New York. The movie opens with a battered Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) telling the viewers how she’s always seen ghosts and that ghosts are around.
The movie goes back in time, where we properly meet Edith, an aspiring writer and daughter of a widowed builder, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). We see her meet the poor but titled baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who asks Carter for money to help save his clay mines.
Carter, and Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), a childhood friend, are suspicious of Thomas and his odd sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), to the point of hiring a private detective to investigate them.
Edith has seen ghosts from the time she was young, and her mother’s disfigured, grisly ghost warns her multiple times of “Crimson Peak.” It’s too late, though, by the time she gets there.
Edith falls in love with Thomas and ends up leaving the country with him even in the wake of the brutal death of her father. Side note, Carter’s death scene looked amazing, I think it was mostly practical effects, and I wish some of the other effects looked as good as his death. She moves to his dilapidated estate, Allerdale Hall (Also known as Crimson Peak, because of the red clay that leaches through the snow), with Thomas and his sister. The hall itself is a character unto itself, like the Overlook Hotel and Hill House rolled into one, with actual bleeding walls. Edith sees more ghosts as she grows to hate the house more and more and is disturbed by Lucille’s strange behavior.
In the beginning of the movie, Edith debates with her editor about whether her story is a ghost study. She says it’s a story that happens to have ghosts in it. That can be said about Crimson Peak, it’s really a story about people and isolation, and there happen to be ghosts in it.
It wouldn’t be a del Toro movie if there wasn’t lots of atmosphere and creepiness. I liked that the ghosts are hideous, disfigured, and disturbing. Some of them bear resemblance to Santi from The Devil’s Background, with visible wounds and floating gaseous blood.
Sadly, some of the ghosts were too CGI looking, they all had this plastic sheen that I could have done without, like Pixar movie characters. The one ghost I did like was the bathtub ghost, because it was one of the only ones that seemed to have a real person playing it.
I generally enjoyed the movie but there were some pacing problems. It felt a little too long in its exposition. Some of the tropes were obvious and I figured out where it was going within the first fifteen minutes. It’s still fun getting there, and I think fans of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and the Lovecraft story “The Rats in the Wall” will enjoy this movie. I particularly liked when Thomas tells Edith that their hearts are connected and if the connection is severed then he’ll die because it reminds me of Jane Eyre when Rochester says something similar to Jane. I just wonder if, in my mind, del Toro’s best work will always be his Spanish language work.
So, fans of Mario Bava, The Haunting, and gothic literature, there’s a movie for you.