You’re probably going to be surprised by my description of what this film is actually about: a young woman attempting to recover from the pain of her mother’s death years earlier by using it to fuel her artistic expression. She says of her novel, “It’s not so much a ghost story as a story with a ghost in it–the ghost is really a metaphor for the past” twice, and it’s not difficult to figure out that statement is as much about the film as it is about her novel.
The film is structured as a novel-within-a-film but without making it clear that’s what it’s doing. We are introduced to Edith Cushing as a ten-year-old whose father has just died. She is visited shortly thereafter by the ghost of her mother, who warns her to avoid “Crimson Peak,” with no further explanation as to what/where “Crimson Peak” is or why she should avoid it. We then cut to her as an adult, meeting an old friend of hers who clearly has romantic interest in her but whose interest she does not even seem to recognize. She is currently attempting to sell a novel to a publisher who responds by saying that she needs to add a love story, much to her horror. And so her love interest immediately gets introduced and we get a quick “love story” sequence that includes her adding the requested love story to her novel in just a few chapters in the middle of the book. At this point, we’re really in her novel, but the film doesn’t tell us that until the credits start to roll.
The entire film from that point on becomes a fairly predictable modern horror story. It pretends to be a ghost story but then it turns out that the ghost is trying to help Edith survive her new husband’s murderous psychopath sister/lover. It’s clear quickly that Thomas and Lucille Sharpe are either a husband and wife pretending to be siblings or an incestuous couple and that Lucille has some sort of strange coldness within her, so it’s quickly clear where the rest of the story is going.
However, what’s really good about Crimson Peak is that it really doesn’t care that we know where it’s going. It comes up with a rather bizarre setting of a house on top of a clay mine slowly sinking into the ground and missing much of its roof so that liquid clay can seep into the house like so much blood, the ground can be bright red and alien, the snow can turn red as though soaked with blood in the film’s winter climax, it can be cold and unsettling inside, there can be snow inside the house, and there is a need for the fireplaces to run at all times The setting is an excuse for the visuals, but it makes enough sense to work. And it doesn’t give us any surprises or even try to. It just does exactly what it looks like it’s going to do and hopes we’re going to accept it.
What makes this film as good as it is, though, is the visuals. del Toro and Dan Laustsen fill the entire film with beautiful mixes of colors and absolutely stunning sets. Everything adds to the sense that we’re watching a traditional horror story play out, so that when we see the book close as the credits begin rolling, it ties everything together. Are Edith’s yellow dresses and the red snow obvious and over-the-top? Yes, but they still just look pretty, and that makes the film fun to watch even when its obviousness should make it dull.
del Toro also cast his film well. Jessica Chastain is the real star. I always love her, but part of what I always love about her is the way she simply radiates a warmth and likability at all times, which makes her an odd choice to play a psychopathic killer. And yet, she is somehow able to dial away that warmth and project a cool, controlled evil (until the last half-hour, when she goes completely crazy, but that’s within the story) that could easily have been Bond villain hokey but really wasn’t. It was a fantastic (and surprising) performance that again shows just how great Jessica Chastain is. Nobody else really gets a chance to do anything, though there are a few characters who could have come across horribly in the wrong performers’ hands. Even Mia Wasikowska, who is in nearly every scene in the film, doesn’t get anything to be able to do. Jim Beaver plays her father with a humanity and decency that many actors would have missed, but it still wasn’t any kind of amazing performance.
As a whole, Crimson Peak is a really enjoyable, if a bit slight, film. Its message that art comes from pain is pretty simple and it doesn’t really have anything in particular to say about that, but it does present its message. The plot is predictable, but it really doesn’t matter and the film never tries to hide that predictability. Most of the film really exists as an excuse for how beautiful it is, but it at least completely succeeds in being one of the most visually arresting films you can see. And while Jessica Chastain may not have had one of the deepest or most complex characters in the world to play, she was fantastic in a way that was such a surprise that it really has to be seen.