If CRIMSON PEAK offered nothing more than the creepiest bathtub specter since THE SHINING, it would still qualify as a monstrously entertaining film. But this is Guillermo del Toro directing and co-writing, and so the lushness of subtext mirrors the classically Gothic idiom of the story. The paranormal is the least disturbing of the elements here, played with a gleefully operatic excess, and more than a whiff of the disturbing exoticism of Grand Guignol at work in the passions unleashed.
An American heiress, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is wooed and won by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom HIddleston) an impoverished, but ambitious, minor member of the British aristocracy. His ambition is for more than Edith’s money, though. His dream is to revive his family’s clay mining business with a machine of his own invention, the which requires funding not forthcoming from other channels. Edith is not the typical heiress dreaming of a good match, instead she has set her heart on a career writing ghost stories, or, rather, stories with ghosts in them as metaphor. A residue of her own childhood experience of a haunting. To her Yankee sensibility, the aristocracy in the late 19th century is a group of parasites best left to her empty-headed peers in search of a title in exchange for a rich dowry. A sentiment of which her father, (Jim Beaver) approves, taking as he has an instant dislike to the young nobleman’s soft hands and disquieting air.
Yet Edith is caught off-guard by Sir Thomas’ attentions, and soon, despite the requisite Gothic tragedy, married to him and living in Allerdale Hall in the backwaters of England. A stately home in only the technical sense, with its gaping holes in the roof, and a fine parquet floor slowly being subsumed by the red clay on which the family’s fortunes were built, literally and metaphorically. And, of course, there are all those odd noises, not to mention strange shadows that might be phantoms, or the mere workings of an overactive imagination. The oppressive atmosphere of Allerdale’s gloom, matched by Sir Thomas’ chilly sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), takes a toll on poor Edith’s nerves, while back in the United States, her erstwhile suitor, doctor and occult studies buff, Alan (Charlie Hunnam), refuses to take Edith’s marriage as the final chapter in his romance with her, and begins his own investigation into the man to whom his beloved has plighted her troth.
There is a great deal of well-crafted and fiendishly wicked plot here, but del Toro’s great gift is for mood and atmosphere. The sound of a spoon scraping across bone china is as eerie, if not more so, than the vision of a ghost boiling into view, a ghost that is not the reassuringly typical luminous ball of ectoplasmic light, but rather a roiling mass of gleaming bone and black smoke that absorbs the light around it. In this foreboding universe, the dead are less dangerous than nature itself, as the close-up of a butterfly being consumed by ants confirms. The familiar is heightened into the surreal, creating the tension of a cognitive dissociative state as unsettling as anything supernatural. That we know that the reason for Sir Thomas’ footprints turning red in the snow is because of the red clay beneath does nothing to lessen the impact as it foreshadows what is to come.
The actors of the piece embrace the idiom with a fierce commitment. Wasikowska has the spirit of Shaw’s New Woman, smart, strong, but not quite ready to entirely buck convention. It is the vanilla role compared to Hiddleston and Chastain, but Wasikowska refuses to concede the screen. As the siblings, Chastain is terrifying in her very iciness, but there are delicious visual cues aside from her demeanor. When first seen, attacking a piano with a melodramatic rendering of a piece of music, she is swathed neck to knuckles to ankles in a shimmering red satin dress whose folds, ruching, and pleats are like nothing so much a freshly spilled blood cascading in rivulets. Her ruff is like a sanguine fountain. She is a virago incarnate, and her smile seems a fate worse than death. Hiddleston is more tender, though we are never quite sure what his motives might be, and, as played with a consummate restraint and nuance, it is clear that Sharpe is equally unsure at times.
CRIMSON PEAK is as much about character as it is about terror. As haunting as the main characters are haunted. It does what the best horror films should do, chill to the bone, not so much about what is on screen during its running time, but about what might be lurking beneath the thin veneer of civilization we see around us.