Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak was criticized it for not delivering on the scares promised in its marketing materials. However being a cowardly dweeb who avoids most horror films, I found it genuinely frightening. Despite my fright, the claims that the film isn’t scary enough aren’t unfounded. When nothing horrible is happening, a melodramatic romance unfolds. Lovers Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) and Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) face obstacles, however these take form not as supernatural ghosts, but as Edith’s protective father (Jim Beaver) and Thomas’ cold and passive aggressive sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, cast wonderfully against type). The focus frequently shifts from these relatable, “real world” villains to the ominous ghosts that haunt Edith. In fact Crimson Peak as a film constantly oscillates between the real and the fantastic, the horrible tragedy and heart-warming romance. It gracefully delivers two genres in one film each bringing out the best in the other.
A young Edith cowers in her bed as the shadowy spectre of her mother drifts ominously toward her with a vague warning, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” We catch up with her as a young adult, a cheerful and ambitious aspiring writer. Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) comes to town and the two are smitten with one another. Edith’s father forces Thomas to end the relationship, insisting he “thoroughly break her heart.” Thomas follows the instruction in a painful, detailed monologue about why he hates Edith’s book. She is heartbroken. Although the horror genre elements have yet to kick in this sets up the pattern- the characters are hopeful, excited, happy! This is then abruptly taken away from them. It’s common for a horror film to alternate between high stakes danger and relief, but rarely does the films genre shift with the mood as it does here.
For example, Edith wakes up the next morning to a letter from Thomas revealing that he does love her. They reunite…she is elated! Until Edith is needs to identify the disgusting disfigured corpse of her father- his face is a giant hole. She has a terrifying breakdown, momentarily treating the mangled corpse as though it were still her living father. In the prior scene Edith and Thomas’ romantic reunion is played straight, set firmly in a decidedly unsupernatural (though stylized) world. The lighting and production design are hyper-saturated, nearing Disney World-esque. But even the floweriest, most sentimental monologues are delivered with utmost sincerity, not a wink in sight. Because of the grounded atmosphere of the melodrama the upsetting discovery feels all the more horrifying. The loud aesthetics and horror elements are made relatable by the grounded attitude.
There is a similar dichotomy between the ghosts design and their narrative function. The ghosts Edith encounters are bright red, with twisted, rubbery faces and flaps of skin hanging off visible ribs. Their design comes close to the upbeat spoopiness you might find in a Tim Burton movie. Informed by the human drama of the Sharpe family’s shady history, these creatures ditch the spoopy for the unsettling, the melancholy, and the disturbing. One ghost’s extra long fingers twitch and twist as they reach for Edith. It’s face is a cavernous black hole above a lipless mouth of jagged teeth. They provide pulpy scares, haunting Edith while she bathes and wanders candlelit hallways. When their true purpose is revealed, their halloween looks are subverted by melancholy family drama, with a hint of the “true crime” genre. They are victims of Lucille and Thomas’ twisted financial scheme, trying to warn Edith of the Sharpe’s violent intentions. The ghosts transform from props of horror to tragic figures.
Many, maybe most, horror films have the basic structure of alternating between states of calm and states of horror, but Crimson Peak swings in both directions more dramatically. A typical horror film makes you feel temporarily safe, then in horrible danger, then safe again. Crimson Peak makes you feel not just safe for the time being, but wonderful, then in horrible danger, then wonderful again. It’s not just an oscillation between mood and stakes, but between genres. The atmospheric contrast brings out the best of each. It’s like that time I watched Anchorman (2004) immediately after watching Requiem for a Dream (2000). Both are powerfully effective experiences, and put next to one another they appear even more powerful in their respective methods. This exaggerated pattern expressed in the narrative and the aesthetic results in a wild, beautifully designed, amusement park ride of an experience.