When Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) was a little girl, her mother died leaving her bereft and brought up by her father (Jim Beaver), but there was another emotion to accompany the sadness she felt: fear. One night after the funeral when she was in bed trying to sleep, she heard a ratting at the bedroom door, and turned around to see it open and a black apparition appear, advancing on her until it was enveloping her in its ghastly arms, with one phrase on its haggard lips: "Beware of Crimson Peak!" It is now fourteen years later, and Edith is trying to get her literary career off the ground by writing Gothic romances, but she’s finding it difficult to break into the man's world of publishing. Then she meets the dashing Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston)...
Director and co-writer (with Matthew Robbins) Guillermo del Toro was perfectly sincere about reviving a genre of fiction that had been relegated to pastiche for decades, the Gothic novel. These were not necessarily in the horror category, though ghosts and murders were often part and parcel of them, and Edith explains where they slotted into the fiction world early on in this film to make it clear what we were in for, but even at the time when they were a fashionable craze first time around a couple of hundred years before this movie they were looked down on as only fit for impressionable women, as more serious minds would eschew their tawdry entertainments (Jane Austen famously penned a spoof of the style with Northanger Abbey).
There was a resurgence of the form in the nineteen-sixties, mostly in paperbacks aimed at women but also in the movies and television, with Roger Corman's Poe cycle and Mario Bava's ornate chillers good examples, with TV soap Dark Shadows further down the quality level but with no less a fervent following, and a film revival from Tim Burton three years before Crimson Peak. So what was the difference between what Burton concocted and what del Toro offered up? On the surface, there were similarities; though there were no vampires, witches or werewolves here, a sense of the sumptuous in the art design was hard to ignore, if anything this was even more lavishly designed than the previous work, leaving the sense of a film that owed much to its art department.
But if this was a pastiche of Gothic, how did it play as a story? It wasn’t supposed to be funny, exactly, yet that teetering on the brink of outrageousness until it could resist no longer was very much in the constitution of the material. If there was a flaw for some it would be that you could tell Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain in a performance gradually building to engaging hysteria) were up to no good from minute one, so they felt there were really no surprises, not realising that with this style it was anticipating what would happen that was a big part of the amusement value. Del Toro was not about to tear up any rule books, but what he did was build on the foundations of the classic texts to place his own distinctive stamp on them, so we could tell it was all going to kick off eventually, but when and how far they went was the big question.
That’s not to say there were no issues. By starting with a long introduction before Edith actually reached one of those huge, crumbling mansions that were a staple of the genre, he lost some of the claustrophobia he could have capitalised on when she is stuck in the middle of nowhere with people who may mean her harm. In that section, it was all setting up and establishing characters and motivations, so Thomas is trying to sell his clay excavating machine to various potential buyers, hoping to make a hefty profit on the large reserves of crimson clay on his property, as well as courting Edith against her stuffy father's wishes. But once she was across the Atlantic in the house in Cumberland, del Toro found his form, inviting us to analyse the place of women in Gothic stories by contrasting the resourceful Edith with the more twisted Lucille and asking us who was the stronger, and if madness was what made your mettle then what did that say about general society, not only Victorian to Edwardian but modern as well? Crimson Peak was a feast for the eyes first, though, revelling in the possibilities of bringing the past into the present. Lush music by Fernando Velázquez.
Stylish Mexican horror director who moves between personal projects and Hollywood blockbusters. After a couple of short films, he earned international attention with unusual vampire chiller Cronos. Mimic was an artistically disappointing follow up, but he enjoyed success with vampire action sequel Blade II, spooky ghost story The Devil's Backbone, and another horror comic adaptation, Hellboy. Spanish Civil War fantasy Pan's Labyrinth was widely seen as a triumph and won three Oscars. After a long spell in production hell since Hellboy II, he returned with giant monster mash Pacific Rim and gothic chiller Crimson Peak. The Shape of Water, an unconventional horror romance, garnered him Oscars.