No flowers in this attic. From the studio that pioneered the horror film back in the early days of cinema, comes the truly avant-garde German expressionist film Crimson Peak. Universal and Legendary Pictures provide us with a thought-provoking classically produced horror film that contains prolific imagery that invites interpretation, even from the most veteran of film scholars. Visionary director Guillermo Del Toro lives up to his reputation as a master of the macabre. Although the dialog and acting are weak, the film is beautifully shot and will constantly have you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what is about to happen. This is definitely one of those horror films that will undoubtedly make its way into film appreciation classes because of the vast material there is to dissect and explore. There is also a very self-reflexive element in the movie that is quite fascinating to think about. Not your traditional Halloween fair or ghost movie, this one part ghost story and one part mystery film is still a remarkable addition to the horror library because of the adherence to the very essence of what makes a horror film great.
Crimson Peak is about Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a wealthy engineer in Buffalo, NY who is swept off her feet by the charming old English money Baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Following tragedy in Edith’s life in Buffalo, she marries Sir Thomas and moves to the countryside estate of Allerdale Hall in Cumberland, England with Thomas and his highly aristocratic sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). Despite Sir Thomas’s family name, he and his estate, built upon clay mining, are virtually bankrupt. Hoping that she can help to revitalize Thomas’ family estate, Edith begins to move her assets over to England; however, after a series of encounters with specters of the night in the dark and dank mansion, she begins to feel like something is terribly wrong and her very life may be in danger of meeting the same fate as the ghosts and ghouls.
One of the most noticeable elements of the movie Crimson Peak is the commitment to a truly classically produced horror film in the vein of German expressionism and the avant-garde. Interestingly, it is highly appropriate that Universal Pictures released this film because the founder of Universal Carl Laemmle made it a staple of early horror films released by the then fledgling studio. Although there is no one single definition of what indicates a German expressionist film, common characteristics are: using extreme distortions in the production design to indicate inner feelings or subtext, a very dark and moody style of filmmaking, strategic placement of lighting to create harsh shadows, unique and emotional architecture, and creating a sense of disorientation. Tell tale signs of this cinematic influence in Crimson Peak‘s production design can be seen in the very design of Allerdale Hall. Due to the very artistic nature of German expressionism, there is also a high degree of avant-garde because of the experimental production style, particularly in how it relates to the mystery at the center of this movie.
Although there are many positive elements in this film, some of the negative elements are the underdeveloped dialog and, by extension, the acting, lack of exposition, and at times sloppy editing. Common in German expressionism and avant-garde cinema are these characteristics. Note, that does not excuse the film for not delivering but does help to understand why they can be found in such a high budget movie directed by such an accomplished director. Had the dialog been better developed and even fifteen more minutes of exposition (or backstory) has been added, then I feel the acting would have increased in quality and delivery. As far as the occasional sloppy editing, there is no explanation and could have definitely been carried out with more finesse. Part of what makes this such a beautifully macabre film is the cinematography and production design. There are even sequences that will genuinely make you squirm and cringe at the highly visceral action with a hint of gore.
If you are looking for a traditional ghost story, this is definitely not the movie for you. To quote Edith, “the ghosts are a metaphor.” However, if you are looking for a great movie that embodies the thrills and chills of the Halloween season, then this is one to catch in theaters this month. Because of the expressionistic style of filmmaking, I can definitely see the advantage of and recommend watching it in IMAX (provided it’s the 2D version). It has a little of everything that a well-written horror film needs: death, romance, disorientation, and mystery. For the filmmakers or film scholars out there, prepare to have your mind stimulated as you attempt to interpret what the various symbols mean beyond the more superficial plot of the story.