It’s a weird Halloween this year, isn’t it? Even though the actual day is on this blessed and convenient Saturday, and there’s a ton of events going on, things just seem a bit off. I’ve heard so many people, even this week, who say they’re not sure what they’re going to end up doing, as if the planets are misaligned or there’s something wrong in the air. Well, I’ve got an excellent suggestion: go see Crimson Peak. And if you’ve already seen Crimson Peak, go see Crimson Peak again.
Guillermo del Toro’s haunting and heartbreaking new masterwork is not quite the straightforward Ohmygod A Victorian Horror Movie! that it was touted as initially, but the twisted and beautiful thing it is was well worth the years of waiting. It is, as del Toro keeps explaining, not really a horror movie at all, but a Gothic Romance, with some horror in it. Crimson Peak is sweeping and un-ironic, a delicious decadent decaying Gainesborough portrait of a film. It gets better and more complex with each viewing, but at the same time it feels like there has never been a world where it didn’t exist – like a new Florence and the Machine song, new to your brain but deeply familiar to your soul.
Now, anything worth doing is worth doing all the way. When Guillermo del Toro wants to make a movie with a haunted house in it, he has a massive and actual mansion built on a soundstage in Toronto, replete with a turn-of-the-century elevator and a functioning scullery, and that house arrives at the beginning of the second act and becomes the coolest character in the movie (like Han Solo, if Han Solo were a rotting ancestral mansion).
Speaking of characters, let us pause for a moment and thank the casting gods that the originally-cast Benedict Cumberbatch and Emma Stone dropped out and were replaced by Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska. I like Benedict just fine and adore Emma Stone beyond measure, but Tom and Mia were made for these roles. Tom Hiddleston has always seemed like he stepped out of a time machine, his elegant demeanor and the odd and singular planes of his face tailor-made for playing gods, vampires, and Thomas Sharpe, Crimson Peak’s mysterious male lead. Mia is herself very timeless and virginal, yet at the same time formidable. I loved her in the 2011 Jane Eyre and in Park Chan-Wook’s criminally underwatched Stoker, and I love her as our American heroine here, the independent aspiring authoress Edith Cushing (heh) who has the ability to see ghosts.
The showstopper here, however, is Jessica Chastain. Tumblr may have been all aflutter with gifs of Thomas Sharpe from the trailer, but everybody is walking out of that theatre in love with Lucille Sharpe, the darker and more intense counterpoint to her younger brother Thomas. Has there ever been a more precise and contained performance that at the same time makes such a hearty meal of the scenery? Whose brilliant perfection of an idea was it to have Hiddleston and Chastain play siblings? Can she be a British brunette in more things? I’ve never thought about Jessica Chastain very much one way or the other, but she is just stunning in this. If Academy Awards were given for genre films, she would be up for at least three for one specific and revelatory porridge scene alone. The Gothic genre has “always been fiercely feminine,” del Toro said at a preview screening in Los Angeles, and that’s what you get here, and it is glorious.
And oh, the costuming. Lucille is introduced in a blood-red evening gown, pleats upon pleats upon pleats, her hair plaited with jewels like some duchess; she spends much of the rest of the film in a dark teal velvet dress that you will be seeing replicated on Etsy probably immediately. And costume designer Kate Hawley has created a hyper-Edwardian sartorial landscape for Edith, with puffed sleeves that Anne Shirley would kill for, and floor-length ribbons down the back, and childlike nightgowns that all but swallow her up.
There is a strong lepidopterous motif running through Crimson Peak, butterflies and moths, the psychic and the sensitive and the otherworldly, and this is echoed in the costuming choices. In America, Lucille shows Edith a field of yellow butterflies, and explains that back home they have only black moths. ‘What do they feed on?’ asks Edith. ‘Butterflies, I’m afraid,’ replies Lucille. Later, when Edith is brought to England, to the crumbling Allerdale Hall, she explores the stark landscape in an incongruous yellow dress – a butterfly come as an outsider to the land of the moths, leaving scarlet footprints in the snow.
It may be unsubtle, but it works wonderfully. Crimson Peak may be the most deliciously Symbolist film since Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And I’d say this is Guillermo at his most mature, actually. This is a more reserved, less self-aware kind of storytelling, and through that lens, more luscious than lurid. Like Wuthering Heights, it is a very small and intimate tale told against a grand backdrop; there is a lot of Guillermo’s highly personal The Devil’s Backbone in this film.
Go see Crimson Peak for all this and more. See it to enjoy Doug Jones playing several roles in full body makeup, showcasing his ever-eerie physicality, aided only minimally by computer effects. See it if you want original ghosts that are not hinted at, if you’re tired of cheap found footage horror, if you thrive on orchestral, brutal, literary imagery that is always, always beautiful (see also: Hannibal). See it and appreciate how it lacks completely the tiresome cheapness of an assumed male gaze.
I believe Crimson Peak is a film that will age like fine wine, that will grow and shift and twist as its audience comes around to it. Get on this train, my friends. I need more people to talk to.