“Ghosts are real,” Edith Cushing says. She tells us twice, bookending Crimson Peak with her declaration. The film’s writer/director Guillermo del Toro certainly believes this, too. He’s not playing around. He uses ghosts not for cheap shocks, but for deeply intertwined thematic importance and emotional resonance. He respects their mythological importance, as well as their psychological underpinnings. It’s what gives his dark fantasies such heft, mingling magical realism with more elaborate flights of fancy. He knows ghosts are not merely frightening. They’re expressions of deep sorrow, of lingering pain, of trauma’s echoes haunting those left behind. His latest film is indeed a ghost story, but one that uses the spirits as an added flavoring in a richly wondrous, baroquely designed story of high emotion and uncanny delights.
The ghosts are a metaphor. That’s another repeated line, as Ms. Cushing (her last name a tribute to Peter Cushing, no doubt) is an aspiring novelist in turn-of-the-20th-century New York. She's hard at work on a manuscript for a haunting story. Played by Mia Wasikowska as a smart, shy young woman bristling against patriarchal constraints, she’s determined to follow in her hero Mary Shelley’s footsteps and publish her macabre tale. An editor tells her to add a little romance. She reluctantly decides to do so, but only a few chapters’ worth. This is one of Del Toro’s meta winks, a flickering of levity in a serious, sumptuously appointed production imbued with his love for gothic romance in every frame. Cushing’s father (Jim Beaver) is a rich man who welcomes a mysterious Englishman (Tom Hiddleston) with an investment opportunity. The stranger doesn’t receive Mr. Cushing’s money, but walks away with the daughter’s heart, much to the chagrin of the charming young ophthalmologist (Charlie Hunnam) she ignores.
What comes next is a feast of period detail, as we waltz through a ballroom, glide into boardrooms, stroll along leafy autumnal parks, and end up nestled in drawing rooms where softly murmured sweet nothings are implied. Soon enough, Ms. Cushing is swept away to her new beau’s remote family mansion deep in the English countryside, where he and his severe sister (Jessica Chastain) intend to mine copious runny red clay out of the soil, turning a profit in the process. Chastain, in a series of dramatic flowing gowns, is bewitching, a completely controlled performance of a woman so elegantly tightly wound, it’s not if she’ll snap, but when. Hiddleston is suave and sinister, with something hollow about his affections. Wasikowska, showing eager curiosity mixed with grief and infatuation, plays a romantic slowly frightened by what she finds. It’s all so alluring, and so dreadful, even in the same instant.
The house is vast and creepy, crumbling with loose brick, sinking into the soft ground, the clay seeping around floorboards and bubbling out of pipes. It’s a lovingly photographed spooky place, one of the great movie spaces in recent memory. There are dark corridors, locked rooms, drafty windows, fluttering insects, dusty corners, voluminous curtains, dripping cavernous basements, looming portraits, a rickety elevator retrofitted along a spiraling staircase, and a hole in the entryway’s ceiling letting dead leaves or snow flurries flutter down. But it’s not just a visual feast of a haunted mansion. It’s a dark, creaking home full of cold mystery, richly decorated with rotting glamour, and possessed with the spectral memories of long buried secrets. Translucent skeletal ghosts howling while evaporating smoky red tendrils are an alarm alerting Ms. Cushing that all is not well in this house.
Del Toro, with co-writer Matthew Robbins, unravels mysteries with a pulpy brio, telling his tale with a studied patience for lurid detail and swooning with strong emotions: love, terror, and the riveting power of the sublimely, beautifully perverse. It transcends pastiche (or camp throwback) because he’s not interested in making a tribute to stories and styles he loves. He wants to make a story that’ll sit comfortably alongside the classics. This confidence of design and intention lends the film’s movement, structure, and appeal a sense of history. Its machinations resonate like an old tale, like settling in to read a great forgotten book you’ve discovered tucked away in the corner of a cozy library, rich in complex archaic language and lush generous plotting that slowly sinks in like a comfortable chair beside a roaring fireplace.
Del Toro draws on inspirations both literary – Austen and the Brontes, Ann Radcliffe and Daphne du Maurier – and cinematic – Hitchcock and Lewton, Corman’s Poe cycle, Hammer horror. The result is uniquely his own, preoccupied with hidden histories and deadly secrets, soulful monsters, and innocents most prepared to tremblingly, yet bravely, confront the evils around them. When Wasikowska, dressed in a lacy, frilly nightgown a slightly warmer white than her pale skin, heads down a dark clammy hallway armed only with a lit candelabra, it’s a classic image of this sort of story. It’s easy to see her as a source of hope amidst so much eerie unquiet. (There are also echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and other Del Toro films past.) Dan Lausten’s cinematography is soaked in colors: blood reds, bruising blacks and blues, velvety purples. The film is sensual and sensitive, a completely transporting waking dream.
As the dark truths about the situation bleed through the lush gothic romance, the film culminates with gore and shock, true to its melancholy heart. Through the paranormal activity, and the lavish historical setting, Del Toro swoops with his haunted characters, finding in swirling cloth and swift stabs personal tragedies exhumed, sins divulged, and betrayals revealed. It is hugely entertaining and entrancing, and in the swirling emotional climaxes, it finds great artful truth, wedded to brilliantly, intoxicatingly stylish horror-tinged melodrama. It says the past is rarely finished with us, so we may as well give over to what it wants, the better to help us fight our way to recovery. Ghosts come in a variety of forms. Some float down halls. Others live within us, reminding us of pain we need to heal, trauma we must endure. The suspense: how we emerge intact with a great story to tell.