Crimson Peak reminds one of Edgar Allan Poe scribblings, as the camera swoops around a giant, Gothic styled house, accentuating the beautiful arches and painstakingly designed windows. The look of this house is appropriately surreal, as an odd colour palette is used to give the film an almost fairy-tale quality. It flirts with the horror genre but subverts expectations, creating a movie that isn’t perfect, but if anything it is unique. It isn’t a scary film but it is filled with atmosphere and unanswered questions.
The tale takes place first in America in the late 19th century. A family tragedy occurs near the beginning of the film, starting the horror for Edith (Mia Wasikowska) while also driving her into the comforting arms of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who the young author falls in love with and marries. Make no mistake, while the horror tag may have been stamped on this film, it is more of a Gothic romance story. Edith travels to rural England with Sir Thomas and his sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), to live in the giant mansion I mentioned. The Haunted House. Despite the tame nature of this first act, some characters act extremely passive aggressively, creating a tense feeling that hangs over the film, which turns into a slightly more unsettling atmosphere later on.
Once Edith has moved in with Sir Thomas and his sister, she begins to see strange things. The effects used are chilling and remind one of a Silent Hill video-game – hellish creatures that seem to speak some sort of inescapable truth. Edith seems convinced that they are ghosts, but how does she know? Who are the ghosts, and what is their agenda? Of course only she is seeing them… Or is she? Personally I’d love to see this film again so I can answer these questions for myself as the film leaves it open to interpretation, which is nice for a change.
Chastain plays the cold, unwelcoming sister to perfection and every time she is on screen she steals the scene, her face seething with bottled emotion. Without saying a word Lucille’s body language makes it obvious that she shares only disdain for her brother’s new bride, and regardless of the true love that they share, she seems intent on making Edith’s life as uncomfortable and as awkward as possible. This is how the romantic aspect of the film connects with the horror – the house is haunted, sure, but the set of events that Edith must experience emotionally are equally as horrifying as the creatures she sees.
I’ll be honest, 99 percent of the time I can’t stand romance in films. It so often feels forced or tacked on at the last second, having nothing to do with the plot. Either that or it is simply too sentimental for my tastes. This film however is unique in its genre-blending, as the romantic scenes between Hiddleston and Wasikowska work within the context of the story. Not only do they share great chemistry but the love these two characters share is integral to the plot. It is also tastefully done; each time they embraced it felt right within the world the film creates; appropriately Gothic in nature as the romanticism within the horror framework is further explored. This may be typical fare for a traditional Gothic tale, but for the big screen I can’t think of anything that comes close. All I can think of is Stonehearst Asylum, and that is only because it too was based in a Gothic setting, also in rural England. But the similarities stop there. This film stands firmly on its own two feet, though I am sure there are examples of similar films that successfully blend romanticism with horror.
Unfortunately the final act is a little underwhelming given the build-up; the reason being that the haunted house card is played subtly. Which is admirable for its attempt at something different, however the tale loses its heft because of this. It is also a tad predictable in this final act. But the rest of the film is so gorgeous to look at, whether it is the aforementioned Gothic styled mansion, the fluent camerawork or the extreme attention to detail regarding the period wardrobe… I can forgive the final act for feeling a little flat. Additionally, this isn’t the sort of horror film that has a pay off at the end. Rather, this story features a main character who is slowly going through a world of horrors as the film moves on, creating a character-study that is an interesting mix of desperation, loneliness, depression, madness and love. Crimson Peak isn’t perfect but it sure is an intriguing film. Recommended.
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