Crimson Peak affected me in a very physical way; more so than any film I’ve seen in a very long time. I left the theatre feeling gutted after two hours of blood-soaked doomed romance. Guillermo Del Toro doles out violence as only he can: unrepentant, brutal and stark against a lush backdrop of gothic fantasy. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak puts fantastical terror alongside the more terrifying reality of humans’ destructiveness to great effect.
The less I say about the plot the better, so here’s the barest details: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an intelligent young woman in New York in the late 19th century. She is an aspiring author, but is struggling to have her manuscript taken seriously due to her gender. While at her father’s office she meets the quiet and charming Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and there is clearly a mutual attraction. Thomas is at the office attempting to gain funding for his mining project (the Sharpe fortune was gained from the mines of durable red clay beneath their home).
Over the next few weeks, Edith becomes very close with Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and when she is suddenly left alone by devastating actions, she marries Thomas and moves to their estate in England, Allendale Hall (nicknamed Crimson Peak by locals due to the red clay that stains the snow in the winter). Once at Allendale, Edith’s health begins to fail and she begins to witness horrific spectral visions the likes of which she hasn’t seen since childhood. Then things go exponentially more and more bats hit.
Crimson Peak is driven by two very strong female leads. Edith is an excellent feminist character. She is resourceful, brave, and unwilling to lay back and take the grisly fate meant for her. Perhaps most impressive to me, although it is not particularly important to the plot, is Edith’s sexuality. Not only is she very much in control of her sexuality, but she is actively interested in sex, and when she finally consummates her marriage, she does so with a great amount of sexual agency.
But while Wasikowska does well as the young and reserved Edith, the real standout is Chastain as the tragically unstable Lucille. As Lucille loses control over her carefully constructed life, she becomes more and more unpredictable, losing her inflexible poise from the beginning of the movie until she is rabidly stalking the halls of Allendale Hall, hair and clothing loose and wild.
Crimson Peak feels like an heir to a number of literary ancestors, as though it is equal parts Jane Eyre, The Yellow Wallpaper, and Wuthering Heights, but with like a lot more murder. This is worth noting because many of these influencers are important feminist works. (It’s also worth noting that Wasikowska also stars in an adaptation of Jane Eyre that I really liked, so check it out). It continues a long tradition of feminist horror exploring gaslighting and the torments of womanhood, and in the end there is a compelling sense of sisterhood between Edith and the ghosts that she has been seeking to understand. At the start and end of the movie Edith stands in her nightgown, a symbol for her emotional and physical purity, and it is tainted by blood. Her hair is wild around her shoulders, and it is clear that she has been stained by the events that have shaken her soul at Allendale Hall.
On that note, the costume and set design of this film are stunning, particularly the intimidating hall, a house of horrors as alive as its inhabitants. As the story careens towards its devastating climax, the rotting estate crumbles around Lucille and Edith and they both become more and more desperate, losing control in different ways. And the walls bleed more and more of the red clay that built the Sharpes’ fortune, a metaphor for the blood that has kept the ancestral home standing.
Crimson Peak has a lot to offer, really. It is a beautiful gothic period piece, it metes out violence unapologetically, and at its center are two painfully doomed love stories. If none of this is enough to get you to go see it, go look at those pictures of Tom Hiddleston in a cravat.
Oh, also you see his butt. It’s great.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.