One of the most important things that Guillermo del Toro does right in Crimson Peak is make the house a character. In a gorgeously shot movie that otherwise breaks no original ground in terms of plot or character, this is a crucial choice for establishing and maintaining the tale’s gothic cred.
On the whole, Crimson Peak is a comfortably familiar call-out to the greats of gothic romance and horror (hitting everything from The Mysteries of Udolpho to Hammer films). The in-jokes (narrative, visual, and structural) populate every shot, taking up the same inspiration that informed the practical effects in Coppola’s 1992 Dracula but without being confined to the technologies that generated those effects. Edith Cushing, the heroine, is a multi-layered call out to Gothic heroines in general, to Stoker’s Mina Murray-Harker in particular, and to Hammer’s wacky take on all of the above (in her name). It is striking that she herself expresses a preference for Shelley (Frankenstein) over Austen (Northanger Abbey) — that preference is a sign, in its way, of how seriously the story will take itself (and certainly how seriously the character takes herself). It is also, I think, a sign of what kind of heroine she turns out to be — ultimately more brutal than helpless. She does in the end get her wish, and leaves the story a widow like Shelley rather than a spinster like Austen.
This is not really a subtle film, and it does not depend on surprise (although the occasional jump does occur). The Wilkie-Collins-Does- Flowers in the Attic -ish history informing the villain(s) of the piece does not hide itself — indeed, it does not pretend to. What there is in this story of nuance owes itself to a puzzle it presents (how to understand the ghost as metaphor in the parallel between Edith’s manuscript and the movie’s own plot) and to the nice work of the cast, who take the film as seriously as it takes itself (which is actually a good thing for selling what is most absurd about it).
If the ghosts are a metaphor, what do they represent? In another context (say, The Turn of the Screw), the answer might seem relatively clear [the reader may insert whatever pet notion s/he likes about repressed sexual desire, politics, etc.]. In this story, though — where the ghosts are “real” — I find myself preferring to think of them as representations of the gothic sensibility itself, ultimately pushing Edith back from Modern Prometheus to slightly-more-self-aware and somehow more plainly American version of Catherine Moreland, in a Hammer film version of Northanger Abbey.
People who already like Tom Hiddleston are likely to come out of this film confirmed in their affection for his work. What he does here makes especially visible, perhaps, why his outings as Loki in the Thor and Avengers properties have been so effective at turning a villain (and make no mistake about it, Loki’s trouble on a stick by design) into a more sympathetic character than he perhaps deserves to be. Hiddleston shows himself skilled at simultaneously expressing subtle menace and a kind of twitchy ambivalence about the whole bad-guy business. This is what allows the character of Thomas Sharpe to redeem himself convincingly in the end, even if only a little bit. All along, one gets the sense that he has never felt the power to choose for himself, that choosing itself is terrifying, until the moment when Edith gives him the occasion to imagine otherwise. He’s not any good at it, to be sure — he lacks practice. Thomas Sharpe is a weak-spirited fellow, a reluctant villain who can seduce the women his sister will kill and knowingly put them in her hands, but who cannot bring himself to kill a small dog (or anything else, really) outright. Even in his most redeeming moment — refusing to take Edith’s money, refusing to kill her or would-be rescuer, Dr. McMichael — he still can’t free himself from his sister, and cannot help but try to persuade her to join him and Edith in some fantasy of a new life. Hiddleston plays Thomas’ conflict and his basic weakness of character very well; Thomas Sharpe is, in the end, still the 12 year-old boy whose older sister both protected and exploited him, and his dreams are that little boy’s dreams. His break from childhood only occurs when he consummates his marriage with his umpteenth wife -cum-victim (Edith), a sexual shift from fixation on his sister that makes possible the near-redemption that follows. Hiddleston gives us this character honestly and well, and it sells the movie at points when Jessica Chastain’s overt and committed mania as Lucille Sharpe might otherwise put the whole thing far over the top.
It is the visuals and the character of the house itself — bleeding clay, creaking, groaning, haunted more by decay than by anything truly supernatural — that make the piece work best, though. The plumbing, the holes…it all speaks. Like every other creepy abbey or castle or menacing old house, the one is filled with meaningful shadows and self-conscious architectural flourishes. Even if the ghosts aren’t real, the lush decay of the house itself invariably is. Come for the gothic stuff, sure, but stay for the sights and the sounds, and immerse yourself in the world. That’s the best way to get your money’s worth out of this particular bit of cinema.