Words by: Jack Dawson
Crimson Peak is one of those movies where whatever faults are present are swiftly overwhelmed by the strengths of the film, to the point where you find yourself excusing problems that would normally sink a movie.
The faults include annoying main characters, a rote script, and next to no deviation from genre conventions. The strengths include some of the best art design I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road, the kind of superb sound design we’ve come to expect from Guillermo Del Toro, and an understanding of why certain tropes and archetypes have endured for so long. Plus, it’s creepy as all hell.
If you’re familiar with the tropes of Gothic Romance, you can probably fill in the plot details yourself. A young woman named Edith Cushing pursues her dreams of being a novelist in turn of the century Boston, before being charmed by the mysterious and enigmatic Sir Thomas Sharpe. He seeks funding for new mining equipment that might make the excavation of the red clay of his homestead easier, which in turn might help to repair and maintain the hulking ruin of a mansion that he and his abrasive Sister skulk in. And as the film continues, it becomes clear that the sins of the past intend to visit themselves on all of the characters in the film.
Ghosts, Poison, and Lapdogs ensue.
So let’s talk about some of those flaws. I’ve seen several critiques of Crimson Peak that complained about it not being scary enough for a Horror Film, featuring characters with the same intelligence of lumps of teak, and for a strange undercurrent of misogyny in some of its more old-fashioned attitudes. I can actually sympathise with all of these claims, and they are mostly reasonable perceptions of the film.
I will say that it makes sense that Crimson Peak isn’t scary enough for a horror film, since, despite its marketing, Crimson Peak is not a Horror film, it’s a Gothic Romance. For one thing, that means its primary focus is being eerie rather than scary, and for another, it’s the root cause behind the other two complaints I listed above.
One of the primary devices of Gothic Horror is that all the characters act on emotion, with the divide between rational civilization and untamed romance being one of the major keystones of the genre. Unfortunately this does result in protagonists with all the self-reservation instinct of a wet sponge in hell, which is necessary for the story to progress in a way that compliments the eerie imagery presented.
And since the main character of the film is a woman, that means she has to ignore a lot of reasonable Father figures who turn out to be completely right about everything in order to progress through the plot, to say nothing of the differences between the two main antagonists and how one is awarded complex character growth and sympathy compared to the other. It doesn’t come across as a deliberate act of malice, just an unfortunate by-product of the genre conventions of Gothic Romance as well as a measure of tone-deafness on the parts of the filmmakers.
Despite this, Crimson Peak might be one of my favourite films of this year, and I will happily recommend it to anyone within earshot, purely on the strength of its visuals and technical polish.
It’s a little difficult for me to describe what works about this film, since this film review is textual, and the strengths of this film would be best demonstrated by showing you directly. Suffice to say that the haunted house of the eponymous peak is beautiful, my own jaw dropped to the floor when I first saw it. Everything from the hallways to the kitchen is replete with detail, which actually takes care to provide plausible realistic explanations for many of the strange phenomena that poke about.
The costume design is similarly detailed, everyone’s clothing is significant, and many of them look like lavish illustrations from a bygone age. And the period appropriate details on display before the film moves to dreary England are wonderful to behold, everything from the creature comforts of wealthy industrialists to the dirt roads of a city are detailed to an impressive degree.
Crimson Peak might be a very tired story without much in the way of innovation, but damn if it isn’t the most perfectly realised rendition of that very concept that there’s ever been.
Crimson Peak comes with some potential hang-ups for audience members, but if you have an appreciation for art design or a lax attitude towards script problems, this probably won’t pose much of a problem for you. And honestly, even if you do have a problem with genre scripts which are happy to retell the basic story you’ve seen a thousand times before, go see this movie. The visual elements are more than good enough to redeem it and supporting this genre of movie, which is far more obscure than we generally see in film and has a lot to lose, will help similar daring experiments to find their way to screen.
All in all, there’s far worse you could be looking into on ‘Halloween’. That god-awful-looking Scouts film about the Zombie Apocalypse, now that could be a different matter.