Guillermo Del Toro's new movie doesn't hold back in letting the viewer know that something is wrong with Crimson Peak, a nickname of sorts for Allerdale Hall, an enormous gothic mansion located in the English countryside. When Mia Wasikowska's character Edith Cushing opens the film with the line "ghosts are real," we gather that there will probably be ghosts in the house. They end up showing up even sooner, in fact just moments after this opening line of narration, as we see Edith's dead mother appear to her as a ghost and tell her to "beware of Crimson Peak." That the viewer is essentially warned that this place has all sorts of creepy stuff going on might seem like a weak piece of storytelling, something that could have been communicated in more mysterious ways, like it was in similar gothic stories like the Jack Clayton's 1962 film The Innocents, or Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre (I know the former was a direct influence on the film, and I suspect the latter was as well).
But as it turns out, that's part of the film's genius, for what I think are two central reasons: the first is that it takes a surprisingly long time for the film to actually get to the house (I didn't check my watch, but it felt like a good 40-45 minutes). Del Toro really takes his time establishing all of the film's characters, yet because we know we're going to end up at Allerdale Hall eventually, it makes this buildup all the more tense. How is Edith going to get there when it seems as though everything is going against her favor to do so?
First off, she's an aspiring writer of ghost stories and she needs her father's (Jim Beaver) office to type them out (this also points to the fact that Edith is protected from the world by her status: she doesn't have to work, stays in her father's comfortable home, and and gets to satisfy her creative urges at the expense of getting any real experience outside of her comfort zone). More importantly, her father is wary of Sir Thomas Sharpe, an Englishman who's arrived in America seeking to gain him as an investor for a clay mining machine he's designed. The father's dislike for Thomas is initiated by his distinctly Un-American process of attempting success through status rather than experience. The father feels Thomas' hands and calls them the softest he's ever felt, a comment on the fact that Thomas is seeking fame without working from the ground up. His poor regard for the man is only heightened when Thomas shows interest in Edith, a poor option in his mind when the town physician, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), is readily available.
Del Toro's generous time allotment to what could have been a rushed introduction is actually one of the best things about the movie. While you'll generally hear the film's stunning visuals attributed the sequences at Allerdale Hall, that's really just because they're trying to draw more attention to themselves. The scenes in America are impressive for different reasons, and show that Del Toro is not just a master at creating haunting, mysterious spaces, but also conventional ones. For example, take the scene that cements the mutual interest between Edith and Thomas, a gorgeous ball where Thomas picks her to waltz with him "english style," (rather than trying to integrate himself into the styles and manners of Americans, Thomas is purely advertising his European sensibilities) so graceful that one can hold a candle during the dance and it won't extinguish. Before that we're also introduced to Thomas' sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) as she plays a dramatic piece on the piano for the guests. This further establishes that the Sharpes are dramatic and ambitious siblings who enjoy basking in the attention drawn on them. I loved the way Del Toro's camera slowly creeps up behind her as she plays, not revealing her face until she strikes that final dramatic note and receives generous applause. It's the kind of big reveal of a character's face you tend to only get in classic Hollywood movies, the exaggerated introduction that blatantly signals that this person will be of crucial importance to the film. I loved that ball scene in general, especially the way Del Toro's camera sweeps around the room, going from intimate personal exchanges to wide shots that accentuate the film's beautiful production design and costumes. It feels like something Kubrick might have shot in Barry Lyndon.
Or take a later scene at a park, where Thomas reads Edith's manuscript, the grass littered with leaves and the background full of people lounging about on blankets or picnic chairs. It gives the sense that Thomas has not just come to a new land, but a new society that's distinctly American and that he doesn't quite know how to fit into. This is the upper class society of America, where people do things in groups and always seem to be around. As we will learn later in the film, Thomas most certainly is not used to that. Perhaps that's why he seems so drawn to Edith, a recluse who prefers staying at home to read and write rather than go out to parties.
Throughout all of this there is tension building, tension in the audience as we wonder if we're seeing a costume drama or the horror film we expected, and tension in the story itself, as Edith's father hires a private detective to find some sort of evidence against Thomas so that he can bribe him to return to England and leave his daughter alone.
To avoid too much exposition, I will just say that, by a few great moments of characters taking the situation into their own hands (one quite literally), Edith does end up moving to Allerdale Hall as Thomas' new wife. This eventful and energetic first big chunk of the film almost works like a mini movie in and of itself, which leads me to the second reason I believe the film's blatant early admission of its ghostly workings are actually a good thing: once we arrive at the gothic mansion, and apparitions show themselves more apparently, we realize that what we thought was a pronouncement for what sort of film this would be is only a small part of the whole that Del Toro's is seeking to build. We realize that rather than being a house with ghosts, Allerdale Hall is a house that happens to include ghosts. Other aspects of it are far more intriguing, and it's these aspects that largely contribute to Crimson Peak's greatness.
Consider the house itself. It has a terrifying presence from our initial introduction to it, as we see it planted in the middle of a the desolate English countryside surrounded by nothing but barren fields and empty hills, the wide aerial shot giving a sense of the forlorn and the creepy. Del Toro probably could have scouted our an old English manor to shoot in, but, as he's stated as saying the house is a "vital character in the movie," it makes perfect sense that he actually built this place to fully accommodate his vision.
And what a grand vision it is. As Thomas introduces Edith to his home, she immediately comments that it's colder inside than out. Thomas explains, pointing her towards the ceiling, where we see a massive hole in the roof with shards of woods protruding from the edges like knives. Just as unsettling as the fact that there's this hole is the nonchalant way Thomas explains its presence, showing no intention of having it repaired. We'd expect a husband to fix such a problem before moving in his new wife, and the fact that Thomas doesn't is one of the great ways Del Toro manages to put the audience on edge and make them feel uncomfortable about the entire situation (he does it countless times--another favorite including a stray dog that we find out isn't actually a stray--and it's moments like these that I found far more creepy than the more in-your-face scare moments that come later in the movie).
Just as unsettling as the gap in the roof is the fact that the house is rotting and slowly sinking into the ground. It sits above a massive reservoir of red clay, which Thomas explains through demonstration by pressing his foot against the ancient wood floor. We see a bubbly red goo rise up through the cracks, and I was equal part giddy and unsettled. What fun Del Toro's having with this creation, what care he's put into it, but also, how dreadful this must be for Edith. Sheltered her whole life, she's finally ventured out of her comfortable surroundings, and she gets this. It's more disquieting than the fact that she's had encounters with the supernatural and will continue to her new home. Ghosts are something she can fathom, but being in a foreign place with her first husband is something beyond anything she's ever experienced. The sheer opulence of the rest of the house, the ancient furniture, the enormous fireplaces, a squeaky elevator, would be enough to make anyone in this situation a little ill at ease. That it's falling apart and that Thomas isn't simply indifferent, but almost a little proud of its decrepit state ("a house as old as this one becomes, in time, a living thing," he says) makes us feel all the more sorry for Edith.
I've only touched on a few of the components of Del Toro's grand creation, and there are many more. It's all to say that, as this is Edith's story, her opening statement about the reality of ghosts ends up mattering less than we're led to expect. Sure, ghosts play an important role in the film, but the mysteries, horrors, and surprises that Del Toro has on top of that end up taking precedence over them. There's so much more to say about the movie, about the finely tuned characters, the massive amount of feeling Del Toro manages to pack into them, about the tension and suspense he derives from them, and about the house itself, that the picture's opening moments end up feeling like a false tease for a movie we expect and don't get. And that's a good thing, that's why I think the movie's so wonderful, and I wonder if that's why so many were let down by it.