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Movie review 'Crimson Peak': This flawed Gothic fantasy has passion and horror in equal measure

DECCAN CHRONICLE | ROHINI NAIR
Published Oct 16, 2015, 9:31 pm IST
Updated Mar 27, 2019, 11:20 am IST
Despite spellbinding start, the film disappoints with campy second half

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam

Rating: ** 1/2

In M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment’s character explains his predicament to the psychologist played by Bruce Willis: “I see dead people,” the little boy says. Well, the heroine of Crimson Peak — the bookish Edith Cushing (played by Mia Wasikowska) — “suffers” from precisely that problem. Ghosts show themselves to Edith on at least two occasions, once as a little girl, and then later, when she reaches adulthood. At both times, they warn her of a peril to come.

 

Even if she didn’t have her run-ins with ghosts, Edith is different from other American women her age and of her time (the late-1800s): She is independent-minded and more interested in establishing a literary career (in one scene, a few society ladies mock her as “wanting to be the next Jane Austen”) than in attending balls. Edith is busy at work on her novel — “A ghost story?” her potential publisher exclaims, unimpressed, to which she responds, “It’s a story with a ghost in it!” (incidentally, that’s exactly what director Guillermo del Toro has said about this film) — far too busy to notice, for instance, that her childhood friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam) is deeply in love with her. Having lost her mother as a little girl, she dotes on her father, a builder who’s made his own fortune.

And then she meets the enigmatic and charming Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) — an impoverished English aristocrat who is visiting America in a desperate search for funds to revive his family estates. His county is famous for its liquefied red clay — the bricks made of it are rumoured to be stronger than most other types, but by the time Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) come into their inheritance, most of the clay has been mined away, and substantial capital is needed to get to the reserves deep below the ground. Edith is swept off her feet and soon finds herself on her way to England, with a husband (and sister-in-law) she knows very little about, to a house she knows nothing about.

The family home of the Sharpes is spooky, mysterious and falling to pieces. Dark moths mottle the walls, snow and leaves fall through the broken tiles of the roof, red clay like molten wax pours down the walls and seeps through the floors and there are all manner of strange noises and happenings that frighten Edith out of her wits. And it is here, in this vast, unfriendly house, that she begins to see ghosts again. Twisted, macabre bodies with their innards laid bare, drenched in red liquid that could be blood or the clay. They keep trying to reach out to Edith — to hurt her or have their own hurts assuaged, is something not quite immediately evident. And too late, Edith realises that the ghosts are not the only ones that want to put her in the path of mortal peril.

Unfortunately, it is at just this point that Crimson Peak — so spellbinding to start off with — begins to falter. From dark Gothic horror, it veers into campy territory. At some point of time you feel like telling intrepid Edith that perhaps investigating every loud sound and shadow — when she’s already learnt that they rarely, if ever, lead to good things — is perhaps not the wisest course of action. But then, was there ever a horror movie that didn’t have the heroine blithely (or not-so-blithely) seeking out the very things she should be running away from?

For all her intelligence, Edith seems remarkably slow when it comes to figuring out that all is not as it should be in the Sharpe family. We suppose having a husband as hunky as Thomas (Hiddleston plays him with swoon-inducing intensity!) must hamper with any woman’s powers of reasoning?

Despite the disappointing and campy second half of the film, you won’t be able to look away from the screen. The photogenic actors and the chemistry between them certainly helps. But the main reason is Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous sets. These are so saturated with details and colour — especially the walls and passages of the Sharpe ancestral property — that they add layer upon layer to the visuals. There is just so much to see on screen at any given time! The fantasy element, the sets and some of the ghouls are also faintly reminiscent of del Toro’s acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth, although as a film, Crimson Peak will be counted nowhere as highly as the former. On the plus side, the Gothic genre/atmosphere is such a perfect fit for this tale of fear, evil and forbidden passions that it’s a wonder more stories/films are not being set in it. 

When we see Edith at the start of the film, she explains of the ghost in her book, “It isn’t real, it’s a metaphor for the (heroine’s) past”. By the end of her experiences with the Sharpes, she believes that “ghosts are real”, tied down to places they can never leave. Crimson Peak is a story of ghosts, both real and metaphorical. Its flaw is that the “real” ones are far more fascinating than the “metaphorical” ones. The most compelling films in the horror genre have humans who’re at least as interesting as the ghosts they’re haunted by, if not more. InCrimson Peak, that sadly, isn’t the case. 

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