Edith Cushing will tell you that ghosts are real. She’s seen them since she was 10. It started the day her mother died and left her … and then came back again to terrorize her in the dead of night. The horrid specter warned her simply to “beware of Crimson Peak.”
It’s a caution that has held no meaning for Edith in the 14 years since.
Her sensitivity to the earthbound dead, though, compels her to be fascinated with these wispy, skeletal intruders. She even pulls them into the stories she’s writing, where they casually show up—meaninglessly—in the fabric of things, much like they do in her own life.
Not that their spooky inclusion has helped her sell any of her stories. Even in these early 1900s, publishers aren’t keen on printing anything created by a woman. Especially if it isn’t a love story.
Which, in a way, is somewhat ironic. For even though Edith has had no great interest in writing about romance, she recently was drawn into a quite surprising love story all her own. An English baronet named Thomas Sharpe popped up out of nowhere and, well, swept her off her feet, to use a romance-novel phrase. His raven-haired sister, Lucille, struck Edith as an almost scarily intense sort. But Thomas was hard-core charming.
Some might have cynically thought that Thomas’ attentions were money related—driven more by her father’s fortune than her personal virtues. But Edith isn’t one to listen to such drivel.
Soon, they’re married. Edith and the two Sharpe siblings all sail off to Thomas’ manse in England—an immense moldering manor with crumbling facades and drafts so strong you’d think the place was breathing. And ghosts. Yes, there are plenty of those creepies crawling through the crumbling hallways, too. Ghosts and black moths, locked doors and secrets. Oh, and one more thing:
The Sharpe homestead is built on a mountain of red clay. A clay that seems to seep into every crevice of the house and weep from the walls. When it snows, the substance even bleeds through winter’s white cloak.
It’s a phenomenon that’s earned the estate the local nickname of … Crimson Peak.
It’s suggested that love can have a positive impact on friend, family and foe. Carter Cushing is portrayed as a loving father devoted to his daughter’s wellbeing. Edith’s good friend Alan also puts everything on hold—and his life on the line—when he suspects that Edith may need his help. And Thomas turns from his initially wicked intentions when he begins to actually fall in love with his wife.
We see a number of foul-looking phantoms that the film tells us are bound to remain on an earthly plane because of some tragedy or great passion that locks them in place. They all appear truly horrific and ghoulish—with smashed and broken bones, and shreds of dangling ectoplasmic flesh. (But none of these creatures actually cause harm or damage, and it’s never explained why Edith can see them when no one else can.) Alan shows Edith glass plate photos that capture the images of normally unseen specters.
[Spoiler Warning] Incest is a central theme in Crimson Peak. It’s revealed that a brother and sister have been lovers since childhood (as a reaction to parental mistreatment and abuse, we’re told). And we see them together, explicitly groping and clutching, partially undressed. The girl calls their incestuous affair a “monstrous love that will make monsters of us all.”
After marrying, Edith and Thomas kiss passionately on several occasions. They’re also shown having sex; he pulls up her nightgown, she tugs off his clothes. (We see bare backs, backsides and legs, and their sexual movements are realistic.)
Lucille shows Edith a hidden drawing of a Japanese couple coupling. (Strategic body parts are concealed.) We see the hanging breasts of a ghostly figure. Edith sits naked in a tub of hot water and then gets out to don a light garment. (Her legs and back are visible.)
From the looks of the ghosts it’s clear that extreme acts of violence have been perpetrated upon them. One has a cleaver driven into its skull as it sits in a tub full of blood, for instance. Another holds a murdered infant. Another sports crushed and shattered facial bones. And so on.
We see similarly ugly and horrible-looking deeds perpetrated upon the living. One man is stabbed several times in the chest and then in the face. (We watch as he slowly pulls the blade from his ruined and rupturing cheek.) Another has his head and face slammed repeatedly down onto a porcelain sink until the sink breaks; his eye is obliterated and his face torn open by a series of horrendous, gaping wounds.
Somebody is stabbed in the armpit and abdomen, the wounds spurting when the blade is removed. One woman is pushed off a high balcony, hitting a rail and shattering her leg on the way down. Two women fight with knives, one getting her cheek slashed open. Somebody gets hit repeatedly in the head with a shovel, resulting in a crushed skull and broken neck. A skeletal corpse floats up from its hiding place at the bottom of a watery clay pit.
We hear tales of domestic abuse involving a husband and wife, parents and children. In an up-close view, ants swarm a fallen butterfly and begin to consume it.
Edith is repeatedly given a poisoned tea that causes her to spit up blood. Guests at a dinner party hold glasses of alcohol.
Early on in this peculiar pic, the beautifully bookish aspiring writer Edith explains to a potential publisher that her proffered manuscript isn’t exactly a “ghost story.” It’s more of a character-driven drama that just happens to have ghosts in it, she says. And for all of Crimson Peak’s “haunted house” billing in theaters and deep-black spooky trailers, that description applies to the movie as well.
This is actually a tortured and twisted drama that just happens to have horrific ghosts scrabbling, swooping and swooning somewhere on its edges. It may seem that those ectoplasmic apparitions with clawed hands and gaping skulls should be important, but they’re really just texture. And deliberately obtuse director Guillermo del Toro has the artistic skill to use that baleful texture in the service of enticing and captivating us with his hand-stitched world of decay and detritus.
That may sound improbable. And the fact that people are actually living in a decrepit mansion with blood-red clay dripping down its walls and a roof so damaged and torn that snow and leaves fill its main hall, may seem logically ridiculous. But it all looks so visually compelling …
It’s actually the movie’s core story—its tale of grisly murder, betrayal of the innocent, creepy incest and familial abuse that pushes this pic into some really dark places. And its wince-worthy words and images aren’t anywhere near as easily brushed aside as, say, a cinematographic palette of falling leaves and crimson-dappled snow.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.