VERDICT: Go see this movie on the big screen. And see it in IMAX. Crimson Peak delivers unforgettable visual storytelling, which sets it far apart from the bulk of mainstream horror.
Edith, the protagonist of Crimson Peak (Mia Wasikowska), gives the audience a half-winking clue for how to read this movie when she says of her own ghost story, “The ghosts are a metaphor for the past.” They’re not the only metaphors in Allerdale Hall; I can’t recall any movie in recent memory so thick with visual symbolism, the majority of which is boldly unsubtle (HINT: the red clay looks like blood), quite in keeping with the larger-than-life tradition of Gothic horror. This is a movie that benefits from being on an IMAX screen. You’ll want to see every stitch, every snowflake, and every trail of red clay oozing down the walls.
Despite a power trio of lead actors, the characters are not the stars of the film — that honor goes to Allerdale Hall itself. Like any good Gothic story, the architecture becomes the focal point, both as a major obstacle for the heroes and as a symbolic reflection of everyone’s inner turmoil. And Allerdale is perhaps the most extreme Gothic horror setting ever conceived: impossibly proportioned, it is a cathedral of hubris, built from the same red clay that it slowly sinks into. The roof of the foyer has a massive hole that provides no protection from the elements, and the upper levels are infested with giant moths. Allerdale is teeming with Gothic imagery, and it is a macabre delight to be shown through its labyrinthine corridors past endless curiosities.
As if to make its literary influences plain, the film is also full of books, and also seems aimed more at bookish types than horror fans. Edith’s peers mock her for wanting to write: “Jane Austen died a spinster.” Edith replies, “I’d rather be Mary Shelley. She died a widow.” In a world where “ghosts are metaphors,” stories and storytellers gain power; “Crimson Peak” is not only the name of the estate, but the name of Edith’s completed manuscript. Books are as layered and mysterious as a giant Gothic manor — as when Edith is shown a book whose pages reveal a hidden, improper picture when they are held together at an angle. Like this book, every detail in Allerdale adds to the pervasive sense that there are many layers of secrets in every corner of the building, and within every frame of the film.
Few reviewers have denied the effectiveness of the film’s atmosphere, its status as a “horror movie” has been a point of contention. So let’s get this over with: the film is not scary in the slightest. There is a bit of the trademark Guillermo del Toro gruesome violence (remember the bottle scene in Pan’s Labyrinth?), but the legitimate “horror” sequences are few, far between, and rely a bit too much on jump scares. After a while they even become tedious. This is somewhat disappointing, but thankfully the true center of the film’s horror is Lucille (Jessica Chastain.) Chastain invests a captivating performance into a conventional Gothic villain, which seems to fit the film’s overall project of breathing new life into a very, very old genre.
The movie has flaws, but any issues stem from its unflinching dedication to being authentically, unapolagetically Gothic. I admire del Toro for refusing to engage with realism, which has become the dominant mode of modern horror (e.g. found footage). I will admit, however, that I didn’t find the plot particualarly interesting, nor the *big twist* especially shocking. Even 18th century Gothic novels descended to much lower extremes of depravity. I had also expected the story to do a little more with its female characters. It plays with but ultimately rejects the “male savior” trope typical of the Gothic (but I would expect nothing less). And though Edith consciously subverts her gender expectations in the beginning of the movie, her proto-feminism becomes forgotten as the plot progresses and atmosphere dominates.
Negatives aside, I cannot recommend seeing this movie in theaters enough. The production design is worth the price of the ticket alone. Guillermo del Toro names movies like The Shining, The Exorcist, and The Omen as having inspired his desire to make a large-budget horror movie, but when leaving the theater I was reminded less of these films than of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Besides a number of similarities in their premises, both films are the product of daring directors who place their vision above all else and succeed tremendously. Crimson Peak will handsomely reward those who let themselves be drawn into the captivating world del Toro and his team have created. Typical horror fans may be bored or baffled, but in a horror movie landscape dominated by campy comedies like Cabin in the Woods and lazy trash like The Conjuring, it is very refreshing to see such a gorgeous and interesting project of passion.