On the promotional tour for his latest film, Crimson Peak, Guillermo Del Toro has implored cinema-goers not to be disillusioned by the type of film they are about to see. Seemingly marketed as a horror film in its advertisement campaign and delayed Halloween release date, this is not simply a monster movie. Termed a “gothic romance” by its director, the film is a lovingly crafted exploration of the genre.
The title Crimson Peak refers to the ‘house of horror’ (Del Toro forgive me) owned by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). The film’s protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a typical heroine of gothic romance, she is headstrong and naïve. Knowledgeable through a love of literature but made vulnerable through lack of real world experience, Cushing falls for the enigmatic Thomas Sharpe, who also provides a recognisable Byronic silhouette. The pair relocate from Cushing’s native Buffalo, New York, to our own sombre shores at their family estate, Allerdale Hall, located in the Lake District. It is here where the film’s drama unfolds and Cushing’s world unravels.
One of the central themes of the film is a strong divide between the past, present and future. The setting of America in the early 20th century emphasise the notion of a ‘New World’ as a place of hope and possibility. Conversely England is home to antiquity, reinforcing its connection to the supernatural. As revealed in clumsy dialogue “Ghosts are metaphors for the past” making the ancient setting that much more haunting. This is then reinforced through clothing; Cushing in bright and bold colours visibly opposes the darker tones of her lover, Sharpe, whose costume is interestingly based on clothes from three decades previous to the film’s setting.
This is one of the film’s strongest elements, costume designer, Kate Hawley does a phenomenal job in underpinning the eerie atmosphere of the film via clothing. Atmosphere is also how the film maintains its hold over the horror genre, with only a few jump-care scenes, the film maintains a feeling of genuine trepidation with a terrific use of ambiance latent in the clothes and setting. The house was painstakingly created in a Canadian studio only to be torn down again soon after production. The effort behind the staging is genuinely one of the most rewarding experiences of the film, as every still frame it produces could be considered a work of art.
The house is built on a red clay mine that colours the snow that falls on it in winter, hence the name Crimson Peak. The scarlet clay dripping from the walls visually echoes the violence of the film and the image of Cushing’s yellow dress in the mine’s elevator cage is reminiscent of a canary sent as sacrificial token of death.
Don’t let this fool you however, the film’s heroine is far from meek and is not accepting of her fate. The film, despite it being set in an in extremely repressive era, is quite forward thinking of terms of gender roles and provides two strong central female leads who are very much the orchestrators of their own fate. This also provides an incredible platform for Jessica Chastain who shines in her performance as Lucille Sharpe. Her acting is one of the biggest strengths in the movie, brilliantly creepy and understated in the first few acts, Chastain releases an amazingly unhinged performance in the film’s climax.
Hiddleston also provides a solid performance of Sir Thomas Sharpe with a level of magnetism that enraptures Cushing and audiences. With a similarly strong performance from the cast, there is little to criticise, apart from a certain predictability in plot and dialogue. This can be overlooked on the other hand, due to cathartic nature of the film’s conclusion.
Overall the film is a must for any die-hard Del Toro fans, especially since its his first foray into mainstream Hollywood cinema that has the feel of his earlier, Spanish-language, work. A twisted love story that delves deeply into the realms of gothic horror, Crimson Peak is certainly worth a watch.