The woman, her hair wild, dressed in a white sleeping gown, has blood on her hands and face. She’s standing in the snow, a blizzard wind whipping her dress around her. She stares at the camera and says “Ghosts are real; that much I know. I’ve seen them all my life.”
That’s the opening scene in the film, Crimson Peak. From the man who created the inimitable Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro, comes a gothic horror that makes any other poltergeist or ghost story look like a happy fairytale. Crimson Peak is set during the turn of the 20th century. The story begins as Edith Cushing (Mia Wachowska) recalls how her mother’s terrifying ghost first visited her as a ten-year old, bearing the ominous warning: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” Fourteen years later, Edith, daughter of the self-made, wealthy businessman, Carter (Jim Beaver) Cushing, is an aspiring novelist, hoping to publish a ghost story à la Mary Shelley. She’s an oddity among the high society in Buffalo, New York, and pretends to be unaware of the romantic overtures of her friend, and the local doctor, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam).
When the mysterious and charming English baronet, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his even stranger sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), arrive in town, Edith is immediately intrigued. Thomas appeals to Edith’s father and other local businessmen to invest in a machine he’s designed, used to mine red clay (for building strong bricks) from deep underground. Thomas fails but manages to insert himself into Edith’s life. It’s clear there is another purpose behind his pursuit of Edith, though what that is, is only revealed later. Carter is suspicious of Thomas’ interest in his daughter, and his fears are confirmed when a private investigator finds documents (revealed to the viewer later in the film), supporting his belief that the Sharps have been dishonest.
Carter forces Thomas to pretend to break Edith’s heart, and leave town. However, the next day Edith receives a letter from Thomas, explaining he was blackmailed into rejecting her. When her father is brutally murdered, Edith draws even closer to Thomas, and agrees to marry him. Shortly before she’s due to leave for England, the black, skeletal ghost of her mother visits Edith again, with the warning, “Beware of Crimson Peak.”
Edith arrives at the Sharps’ dilapidated mansion, Allerdale Hall, situated in a bleak and lonely landscape, where the sun never appears to shine. The house is creepy as hell; rotting floorboards sink into red clay; snow and dead leaves fall through the broken roof in the hall. The house is cold, and many rooms are locked, as “they’re not safe”, Lucille explains.
But, Edith soon discovers the winds that howl around the corners, are not as innocuous as the Sharps insist they are. And her mother’s alarming warning echoes in Edith’s ears as Thomas explains the house is also known as “Crimson Peak”, due to the clay that stains the snow blood red in winter. Edith starts seeing ghoulish and horrific ghosts: bloodied skeletons with long fingers that haunt the mansion, and are visible to her alone. As monstrous as they are, these spectres help Edith discover the awful truth about the house, and the Sharps.
Crimson Peak is a rare, intelligent horror that is both petrifying and delightful. Del Toro (who directed, co-produced, and co-write the film) masterfully sustains tension throughout the plot, with erudite throwbacks to gothic horror classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, as well as the gloom of Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. Visually, the film is chilling to the bone. The stark landscape around Allerdale Hall, the red clay that bleeds onto the canvas of white snow, and the gruesome, zombie-like ghosts, are extraordinarily vivid – more like art than a CGI showcase.
Mia Wachowska is known for her roles in weird and wonderful fantasies, like Alice in Wonderland, and dark, brooding films like Jane Eyre. Edith is no different. The character’s innocence, which is shattered by bizarre happenings, is therefore, not an entirely new challenge and plays to Wachowska’s strength. Jessica Chastain is black as night as Lucille, who spirals into a recess of madness, while Tom Hiddleston captures the same struggle between light and dark in Thomas, as he’s done with the evil god, Loki, in the Thor and Avengers superhero films.
Crimson Peak is an example of what horror (a genre I usually deride) should be, and could be. Poltergeist? Goosebumps? Humph…
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mia Wachowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 30 October 2015