Lara Rutherford-Morrison, Film Review: Crimson Peak

Lara Rutherford-Morrison has a PhD in Victorian literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently an Affiliated Scholar at Concordia University in Montreal and blogs daily for Bustle. Her research considers the ways that contemporary culture reimagines and plays with Victorian literature and history, in contexts ranging from adaptations of Victorian novels in film and fiction to heritage tourism in the U.K. She can be found at her website and on Twitter @LaraRMorrison.


There’s a lot to enjoy about Crimson Peak, especially for those of us with a taste for the gothic. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, the recently released film boasts a talented cast and a remarkable visual opulence; the film’s sets and costumes alone are enough to make fans of the Victorian feel like they’re in a deliciously moody candy shop. It’s been marketed as a horror film, but, although the film is rife with ghosts and gore, Crimson Peak is more truly a gothic romance, taking more cues from Jane Eyre and Rebecca than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Del Toro’s affection for the film’s many influences — from The Castle of Otranto to the Hammer horror films of the 50s and 60s — is evident in every carefully designed, sumptuous frame. ¬Crimson Peak feels like a cinematic love letter to the gothic and to 19th-century literature more generally, with subtle and not-so-subtle nods to figures ranging from Mary Shelley, to Henry James, to the Brontë sisters, to Arthur Conan Doyle, to Bram Stoker. For those of us who love the Victorian, it’s a rare opportunity in contemporary mainstream film to completely geek out.

With so much to recommend it, it’s a real shame that Crimson Peak isn’t a better movie.

Crimson Peak starts out with a premise strikingly reminiscent of the Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: Naïve young woman meets dashing aristocratic gentleman and marries him after a whirlwind romance. They remove to gentleman’s English estate, presided over by a menacing housekeeper. Dark events ensue! Secrets are revealed! In this case, the young woman is Edith Cushing, played by Mia Wasikowska, an aspiring American writer who struggles to be taken seriously because of her gender. At one point, someone compares her to a would-be Austen, but she quickly makes her true muse known: Mary Shelley. The dashing gentleman is Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an impoverished English baronet, and the Mrs. Danvers role goes to Sir Thomas’s sister Lucille, played with maniacal gusto by Jessica Chastain.

Crimson Peak, dir. Guillermo del Toro. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain. Universal Pictures, 2015.
Crimson Peak, dir. Guillermo del Toro. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain. Universal Pictures, 2015.

The film begins in the late 1880s in Buffalo, New York, a place of modernity and electric lights; it isn’t until the action moves to the Sharpes’ home in Cumberland that we meet the film’s most fascinating character: Allerdale Hall, the Sharpes’ crumbling, monstrous family home. Literally falling to pieces, with a major part of the roof missing so that snow carpets the main entryway, the Hall is a hyperbolic House of Usher, a Technicolor culmination of every creepy gothic mansion to ever make its way into fiction or film; it’s so over the top that it somehow manages to be completely ridiculous and intensely beautiful at the same time. In a film that never balks from gory scenes of bodily destruction, the house itself is startlingly corporeal — as del Toro has said, the house “breathes and bleeds” [1]. Thanks to the deep red clay that covers the Sharpes’ estate, the house seems to literally ooze blood; it drips from the walls and seeps from beneath the floorboards, a constant reminder to the heroine — and the viewer — that we have left the gleaming, metallic world of modernity and have entered a space that is strange, disordered, and primordial.

Lavishly costumed, the characters fully inhabit this gothic dreamscape. More than once, Edith and Lucille seem to embody pre-Raphaelite heroines, hair streaming to ludicrous proportions as they travel the house. Edith, in particular, is outfitted in a number of delightfully absurd nightgowns, made of diaphanous materials, laced tightly to the throat, and sporting enormous puffed sleeves. Seemingly encased within delicate femininity, she stands in stark contrast to the dark, brooding house and its occupants. With such visual emphasis placed on her almost angelic innocence in relation to the house and its teeming secrets, it’s satisfying to see her, by the end of the film, refusing to play the role of a swooning maiden. A culminating fight scene in the snow — dyed red because of the underlying clay — figures her firmly as a warrior.

Crimson Peak, dir. Guillermo del Toro. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain. Universal Pictures, 2015.
Crimson Peak, dir. Guillermo del Toro. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain. Universal Pictures, 2015.

The visual aspects of Crimson Peak are so spectacular that they nearly — but not quite — mask the fact that the movie’s script just isn’t very good. Where the film excels in imagery and atmosphere, it falters on basic elements of plot and dialogue. In true gothic fashion, Crimson Peak offers major twists, but they don’t shock the way they should. The twists are easily guessed fairly early in the film, so by the time the big revelations come around, it’s hard as a viewer to muster up much in the way of emotion. The film is populated by ghosts that are frightening in design and presentation, and there are many times during the movie that they are legitimately scary. But, although they are plenty frightening in individual scenes, their presence doesn’t culminate in a way that feels climactic or satisfying; as I was leaving the theatre, I found myself asking, “Wait, so why were the ghosts there?”

I also think that, in setting up the relationship between Edith and Sir Thomas, del Toro was aiming to create an epic romance à la Jane and Rochester, so that, even after we learn exactly why their relationship is officially a Bad Idea, we still root for them as a couple. (One could argue at length about whether Jane and Rochester have what could reasonably be termed a “mature, healthy relationship,” but no one can deny that those two throw sparks for days). Unfortunately, Edith and Sir Thomas lack both romantic and erotic chemistry, so by the end of the film, I struggled to feel really interested in the fate of their marriage. And that’s the real problem with Crimson Peak: its visual brilliance can’t make up for the fact that it feels emotionally sterile. By the end of the film, I just didn’t care what happened to its characters.

To be honest, I have a certain ambivalence about whether to recommend Crimson Peak because my own feelings about the film have shifted as I’ve gotten further away from it. Individual results may vary, of course, but my personal experience was this: I left the film feeling frustrated and let down. The twists weren’t twisty, the characters didn’t connect, and the plot didn’t fulfill the promise of the movie’s visual splendor. And yet, days later, I’m finding myself thinking of Crimson Peak often, and not of the ways that it made me feel dissatisfied. What I find myself thinking about — fondly — is the absurdly gothic house, the blood seeping from the floorboards, the small touches here and there that recall and amplify elements from a whole history of gothic literature. Is Crimson Peak a good movie? Maybe not. But I think those who love the gothic — particularly if there’s a bit of camp thrown in — will find something to enjoy.

[1] Kelly Faircloth, ‘Guillermo del Toro Talks Crimson Peak, the Gothic, and the Girl As Rescuer’, Jezebel (2015) [accessed 16 Oct 2015]


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