Do you know the story of Bluebeard?
It’s a rather dark sort of fable. In the story, a rich French man ridiculed for his blue beard seeks a new wife after the mysterious deaths of his previous three wives. He finds a young woman and marries her after some time. He goes away on a trip and gives her the keys to his giant castle, telling her to explore all the rooms except one. Naturally, curiosity gets the better of her and she goes into the one room. She finds the dead bodies of his three wives and in shock, drops the key on the bloody floor. She leaves the room, but she can’t get the blood to wash off the key, which ultimately gives her away and Bluebeard threatens to kill her. She is given time to pray, which allows her brothers to rescue her and kill Bluebeard. It’s a horrific story, but it’s not a horror story.
The story has been adapted a few ways, but the most famous one is by feminist author and journalist Angela Carter, who wrote a story based on Bluebeard titled “The Bloody Chamber.” In it, the young girl tells the story of marrying a sadistic French marquis who does the same to her, but she is rescued by her mother in the end and decides to turn the old castle into a school for the blind. After burying the bodies, of course.
To me, Crimson Peak, Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film feels a lot like Bluebeard, but also a lot like it’s adaptation “The Bloody Chamber.” It’s the story of a young woman unknowingly seduced into a horrific situation that she discovers on her own terms. Unlike those two, she does most of the work to find her way out.
You’ll probably hear in a lot of reviews that Crimson Peak is not a horror movie. I’m inclined to agree, but only in the modern sense of the term. Instead, Crimson Peak is more like a gothic melodrama that would happen if Mary Shelley and the Brontës got together to make a jam piece. If this movie was made in the 60s, Vincent Price would have been right at home in the film (though he may have been too old to play Thomas Sharpe). Most of the things that are creepy about this movie are with the atmosphere, Doug Jones’ obligatory appearance as a ghost, and Jessica Chastain’s chilling performance as Lady Lucy Sharpe. Are there scenes of graphic violence? Yes. Is it creepy and unsettling? Definitely. Is it a horror movie? Not really.
That really shouldn’t deter you from seeing the film though. First of all, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Del Toro has said that Allerdale Hall is just as much of a character in the film as the rest of the cast and its fading opulence with “bleeding” walls, leaves falling through the ceiling into the foyer and the ghosts seen and unseen that haunt the place. If there was anything in the film that made me hope even more that Del Toro’s take on Disney’s The Haunted Mansion goes through, it was the scenes in Allerdale Hall in all their gothic glory. Even the blood red basement that our main character Edith is forbidden from going into. Once again, kind of Bluebeard-y in that regard. The scope of this film is gorgeous and it’s worth seeing it in IMAX to get a full scale of the decaying magnificence.
Edith Cushing is the master of her own fate in this film, even when it seems like she’s backed into a corner by the machinations of others. Played as a shy and bookish aspiring novelist by Mia Wasikowska, Edith is shown often depending on her own wits to survive both society at large and a house full of what Kate Beaton dubbed “murder ghosts.” While she does receive aid from her husband Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and her life-long friend and possible golden retriever Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) at different points, Edith is the heroine of this story through and through.Really though, if you’re going to have someone play a Byronic hero (or whatever the dark, romantic, and mysterious love interest version of that is called), Tom Hiddleston is your man to do it. His portrayal of Sharpe walks this line between charming and quiet and brooding and dangerous. You also see his bare ass in a sex scene and Wasikowska stays completely clothed. Score one for the Hiddlestoners and for a bit more equality in sex scenes everywhere.
The show stealer of this film though is Jessica Chastain as Lucy. Quiet and unsettling to the point of being ready to come unhinged at any second (and she does, spoiler alert), Chastain’s performance really drives the more gothic aspects of this film home with the way she carries herself through the entire film. The house is creepy, don’t get me wrong, but it has nothing on Lucy Sharpe. There’s a scene in the film where she talks about how Cumbria is populated only with Black Moths that eat butterflies, and there’s immediately fear in your heart for Edith. She is the butterfly, and Lucy will eat her alive.
Early in Crimson Peak, Edith describes her novel in progress as a story with a ghost, but not a ghost story. That’s easily applicable to the film itself. There are elements of the story that are horrifying, but it’s not a horror movie and you shouldn’t go into the film expecting that. Instead, brace yourself for a gothic romance full of great performances and treats for the eyes. Del Toro once again wears his influences on his sleeve in the direction of this film, but perhaps not in the way you’d initially expect. If you have a gothic heart that loves melodrama and candlelit mystery, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit to Crimson Peak. Just… maybe… you know… not get married there.