By Bill Arceneaux
Early on in Crimson Peak, there is a wonderful waltz sequence that reveals almost all you need to know about the main players. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a young aspiring writer who has been visited by ghosts on occasion. At a party, she takes the hand of Thomas (Tom Hiddleston), who guides her through a dance. At the piano, we see his sister Lucille; stern in appearance and in how she presses the keys.
Just before waltzing, Thomas reassures Edith by suggesting she close her eyes to hide from the fear. She refuses, exclaiming she must always to keep her eyes open. They share a smile, suggesting that Thomas has something he’s ashamed of, and Edith is willing to confront anything. Meanwhile, Lucille leads the song, practically banging on the instrument. She is not amused.
This richly layered story is mostly under the surface, on the subtextual level. What isn’t being said is more important than what is; what isn’t being shown than what is. Both through the visuals and the script, filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, has crafted a perfectly macabre movie that is simply stated – by which I mean it’s classically told. There are iris wipes, circle out transitions, which evoke films from a century ago; an age in which stories like this were often adapted. The more melodramatic, the better. We’ve grown a bit past theatrics in dramas, so it’s nice when a film pulls it out once in awhile.
As Edith tells a publisher who is going over her manuscript, so too is it true of the movie: it’s not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts. More tragedy than horror, actually. One unfortunate circumstance after another leads Edith to the home of Thomas and Lucille, known as Crimson Peak for the red clay it sits on. As things progress and devolve, the house cries bloody tears, sinking slowly into its own despair as revelations are made and fates are set.
Jump scares? There are a few. But the real ones involve the less traditionally scary moments and more the thematic and tragically charged ones. It’s not quite a subversion of the genre, but rather a clever use of what we’ve come to expect and perhaps a shock to our notions.
I was surprised at how this was less about Edith and more about what she discovers and uncovers. When introduced, she’s a whip-smart and strong-willed creative type, comparing herself to Mary Shelley. As things move along, she becomes dependent on others. Of course, after suffering some horrific events, this is only natural. And of course, her creative side gives way to curiosity, which makes her want to solve the mystery. By the end, however, she hasn’t so much grown as she has experienced. It’s a disappointing arc, to say the least.
Crimson Peak might not really be about the arcs, though. It might just be about the journey. The world it exists in. There are perfectly designed sequences that remind me of open world video games, where you can deviate from the main storyline and just wander and absorb information. We do this through Edith and even on our own at times, looking at the screen and soaking in the environment. There are so many details that tell the trauma of the tale so well. If only it didn’t hint so strongly at some of these…
Ghosts are real and houses are alive. As a horror movie, that works. As a melodrama, it really works.
4 / 5 *s