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Snow White, Blood Red

"Crimson Peak" is as much a swoony Gothic love story as a horror film.

Twenty minutes into “Crimson Peak” I was thinking, “Okay, I’ll just turn my brain off and look at the pretty dresses, this’ll be fun if I let it.” That was right before it turned from a kind of dumb, semi-political ghost tale into a terrifically compelling horror-romance swoonfest. Once the movie makes its swerve into full Gothic it is phenomenal, the kind of thing you’ll rewatch if you like your comfort food red and dripping.

Director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “The Devil’s Backbone“) wears his influences on his giant mutton-chop sleeve. “The Changeling”, “La Chute de la Maison d’Usher”, “The Shining”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Bluebeard,” “Rebecca”, “Flowers in the Attic” (!)–if you like this stuff, get your fangs right on into this movie.

Our story starts in Buffalo, NY in the late 19th century, as self-righteous aspiring authoress Edith (Mia Wasikowska; she’s fine, very dewy) lectures inventor and broke baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) about American enterprise. “In America we bank on effort, not privilege,” a white man says, and del Toro seems politically aware so this has got to be ironic, right? At this point I expected the “meritocratic white Americans vs English who fatten on the labor of the proletariat” stuff to be either vindicated or (better) subverted, but instead it just gets forgotten, which is probably for the best. Anyway Thomas and Edith fall in love, because of course they do, and Hiddleston is fantastic as the swept-away lover whose bruised emotional exterior hides a glint of steel.

And then the newlyweds move in to the glorious Sharpe family estate, where autumn leaves drift down through the broken roof and crimson clay oozes up through the floorboards. The estate is ruled by Thomas’s grim sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and haunted by the memories of the siblings’ horrific upbringing. The snow begins to fall, and Edith is trapped in a foreign land, with her husband and his walled-up secrets….

This is a lush film, besotted and feverish. Even the end credits are a paean to the beauty of moths—and there’s a nice little plot twist there, so don’t leave when the lights come up. The costumes are dreamy, the mansion is a masterpiece—one of the great horror locations—and the romance between Edith and Thomas is scorching. There’s what I would consider a fair amount of gore, but it’s closer to the giallo nightmare style than the Saw-style delectation of suffering. You may have heard that the CGI ghosts leave a lot to be desired and yes, they do look a bit video-game, but they’re also very creepy [edited to add: Startlingly, these were mostly not CGI at all! But still very video-game.]. There are some cheap jump scares. The fighting at the end takes a bit too long. But overall it’s hard to find fault with this film, especially once it leaves the States.

Are there themes? Sure, maybe. There’s some “Who is really trapped?”, are people trapped by circumstances or by their own responses to those circumstances? There are hints that the wages of sin is death. You won’t remember these things, though. You’ll remember Edith and Tom’s first kiss, somehow both hesitant and hungry; the excavator biting deep into the blood-red earth; a swarm of ants, eating a butterfly’s eye; Tom carrying Edith over the threshold of their marital home, and Edith, in the ironwork elevator, rattling down into the lowest depth of the mansion, where the walls are streaked with red.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yAbFYbi8XU]

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.



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