I was very easily scared as a kid, unable to handle most forms of horror storytelling, but there were some horror films that I could handle. The old black and white, movie-monster horror films that would play on TV in marathons around Halloween seemed to suit me just fine. Now we call them classic horror films: Dracula, Frankenstein, etc. Even though those films certainly scared me, they also filled me with wonder. I didn’t view them the same way I do now, where I’m analyzing technique and intent – but the emotions, the characters and story were all out in front and clear enough for me to engage with. You could call them simplistic in their construction, but that’s not a knock on them. I didn’t have to understand them with the clinical mind of an adult, these films were designed to capture the imagination of a child. I had that same feeling watching Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s latest creation. It happened almost immediately, as a young girl in the opening watches the shadows of ghastly hands stretch across a candlelit hallway, and sustained that sense of wonder throughout. Crimson Peak is rated R, but can just as easily be enjoyed by a kid. I am 23 years old, but I wish I had seen this film as an 8 year old.
Crimson Peak – co-written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins – finds young writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) during turn of the century 1900s New York, as she falls into a romance with the charming and secretive Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English industrialist on the ropes, and then impulsively marries him after the shocking death of her father Carter (TV character actor all-star Jim Beaver). Thomas whisks her away to his decaying mansion, Allerdale Hall, in Cumberland, England to live with him and his cold and detached sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Meanwhile, back in New York, her childhood friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam) is weary of Thomas’s intentions with Edith and begins to investigate his ulterior motives. The more time Edith spends in Allerdale Hall, the more she becomes aware of a violent and bloody past that haunts the house, one that could claim her as the next victim.
While only the future can deem it a classic, Crimson Peak certainly feels classic in the sense that it could have easily been made in the 30s or 40s just the same as it was made now. It’s the type of horror that was born back then, rooted in emotion and aesthetic rather than explicitness. There are loving shades of Murnau, Bava and other prolific pioneers of classic horror and gothic filmmaking throughout. It doesn’t even feel completely accurate to call it a horror film, at least not the way that we’ve been trained to expect them. It’s a gothic romance, with horror elements in it to accent certain themes. Edith is working on a manuscript, one which she describes not as a ghost story, but “a story with ghosts.” That’s not far from where Crimson Peak lies itself. In many ways actually, the film is firmly constructed as a children’s film with very dark, graphic adult material coating it.
It communicates this sort of intent early on, as Edith wanders the streets of Buffalo and gets into a verbal exchange with some haughty aristocratic women who deem her an outcast for her independence. It’s a page from Belle’s introduction in the animated classic Beauty and the Beast. The meet cute between Thomas and Edith revolves around him complimenting her manuscript without knowing it’s hers, herself holding back that information. There’s an unexpected chasteness to much of it all, a cheerful and bumbling score ushers it by. The first third of the film feels incredibly theatrical and on the nose with its dialogue and situations, as if these actors are in a Disney production rather than the R rated film here. From that template, the film skillfully treads into darker territory, with alarming imagery of jarring violence and adult material – ants gorging on the eye of a butterfly, blood-drenched skeletons of ghosts moaning across the floor – peppered in throughout.
It shouldn’t be the biggest surprise it successfully operates as a children’s film, as del Toro has previously looked at horrors both supernatural and human through the lens of a child in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. This time, rather than the protagonist, the child is him. The film is an exercise of classic filmmaking, each shot is evocative of what’s cinematically come before, but it creates something wholly unique and original for del Toro. He’s making an ode, a love letter, to horror films from his childhood and in turn brings out the child in the audience. There are flaws with the film for certain – a handful of shots have notably poor dialogue editing, you can clearly see the words don’t match the movements of their mouth – but any film worth discussing has a clash of flaws and successes.
The performances are quite effective from the main trio of Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain. Wasikowska has the sort of communicatory fear that translates well, her billowing hair implying a classic cinematic sense, she’s a Disney princess trapped in a nightmare. There’s a seductive quality to Hiddleston’s pale and ghastly Thomas, with threat of danger lying just beneath. A few scenes have him believably wearing conflict on his complexion over his ulterior motives and his possibly genuine feelings for Edith. The MVP of the cast is Chastain as the cold and calculative Lucille, herself a dominating presence throughout Allerdale Hall. Througout the film, she begins to unravel and Chastain relishes the terror it allows, making an unforgettably frightening performance in the third act.
This is the first studio picture by del Toro that feels fully indulged as wholly his creation. No matter how much ownership he had over Pacific Rim and the Hellboyfilms, you could still spot the notes from the executives in them. Here, there are no such restraints. You’re kind of amazed he got the budget he did to make what could possibly the first R-rated film meant for kids. Crimson Peak is his most authorial, uncompromised, and also best, work since Pan’s Labyrinth. Allerdale Hall is already one of his greatest on-screen creations. Each wall, nook and cranny has lived-in authenticity, there are details on details on details. Red clay seeps through the floorboards and walls, and the venting system creates the sounds of breathing throughout the structure, making the mansion a sort of living, bleeding organism with its own sovereignty. The imagery that constructs with cinematographer Dan Laustsen is among some of his most impressive. It’s photography that indulges the senses, the colors popping and captivating, evoking a sense of classicism, horror and gothic emotion that coat each frame.
It feels certainly ill advised to suggest you take your kids to see an R rated film, but I can’t shake the feeling that kids could really engage with Crimson Peak. I love the film now, but I also would have loved it as a kid. Despite the dark adult material, it has the sense of wonder that ignites the imagination, and purity in the emotional comprehension. It brought out the child in me, and I plan on showing my kids this film someday to foster their sense of wonder in watching a scary film.