The word gothic has a long and conceptually twisty history in English. The Goths were one of many Germanic peoples who invaded the Roman empire around the third century, and for centuries afterward their name was a synonym for barbaric, warlike, or crude behavior. (Shakespeare plays on these two meanings in the first scene of Titus Andronicus, when a character who is an actual Goth looks back with longing at a time “when Goths were Goths.”) In the 17th century, the word gothic became associated with Teutonic culture more generally, eventually providing the name for a style of medieval architecture that originated in northern Europe.
By the late 18th century gothic had also come to stand for an emerging genre of popular fiction with medieval, romantic, or supernatural themes: One element common to such novels was the central presence of an ancient, dilapidated, and often haunted house. And finally, sometime in the mid-1980s, the word took on its most recent sense: A goth became a disaffected young person in black eyeliner who listened to the Cure and dressed in fashions that evoked the languid heroes and heroines of those long-ago novels—Victorian lace-up boots, tattered velvet jackets, jewelry suggestive of the occult. I may appear to be browsing the shelves at the local Hot Topic, this style says for its wearer, but really I’m gazing off the parapet of a ruined castle, awaiting the return of my one impossible love.
Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak brings together all those meanings of gothic. The human characters engage in plenty of crude, barbaric, and warlike behavior, planting hatchets in each other’s skulls and bashing one another’s faces against … ugh, never mind. Much of the film takes place in an enormous and impressively dilapidated mansion—complete with pointy medieval turrets—that’s inhabited by a growing population of unquiet souls. The protagonist, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is a classic gothic heroine: A prim fiction-scribbling spinster, she’s seduced away from her desk by a suspiciously ardent English aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). And the lavish production and costume design—especially as regards Thomas’ sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), a spectral brooder who appears to be modeling Hot Topic’s new line of haute couture—are as goth as it gets.
Is Crimson Peak nothing but a play of richly colored and textured surfaces, so fixated on establishing mood and atmosphere that the script (by del Toro and Matthew Robbins) neglects to develop minor elements like character, story, and theme? That, I suspect, is the question that will divide this movie’s viewers into camps. Personally, I’m pitching my tent on the “pro” side (while conceding that the haters across the way have some valid points). A fellow critic who professed to “adore” the movie tweeted that watching it felt like “sinking, stoned, into a beanbag chair on a long night out with the best-looking lit-class kids ever.” Though my admiration for it stopped short of adoration, Crimson Peak’s effect on me was similarly drug-like. For the two hours it lasted I wasn’t asking any questions, only giggling, squirming, screaming, and swooning.
The giggle-scream is a particularly pleasurable confluence of movie-theater emotions. Sam Raimi is a master at eliciting it, as are Bong Joon-Ho and the early (pre-Tolkien) Peter Jackson. They’re not above sending up horror conventions—self-turning doorknobs, false-alarm jump scares, sudden bursts of over-the-top gore—even as they freely avail themselves of those conventions’ reliable effect on the audience. Del Toro’s teasing attitude toward viewer expectations draws on this tradition, but he also plays some deeper cuts from the history of horror cinema. The sets of Allerdale Hall, the comically decrepit mansion where the Sharpe siblings set out to mess with Edith’s head (or is she just going crazy?), could have come straight from the cobweb-draped soundstages of Britain’s Hammer studio. Even Edith’s last name is an apparent salute to Peter Cushing, Hammer’s longtime Van Helsing.*
Also coursing through Crimson Peak’s veins is genetic material from Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Bronte sisters (both Charlotte and Emily). Del Toro and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen take evident delight in weaving together references to their cultural progenitors, often using old-school camera transitions like irises or wipes. But for all its playfulness, Crimson Peak isn’t just a well-crafted pastiche of earlier works. It also feels, in small but important ways, like something new. One place this novelty shows up is in the importance given to the conflict between female characters. Without giving too much of the story away, I can say that Crimson Peak becomes as much about the rivalry between a woman and her spooky sister-in-law as it is about the romance between that woman and her slippery new husband. It doesn’t hurt that the women’s climactic showdown unfolds on a vast expanse of snow soaked through with a viscous bright-red liquid—not blood, but the mineral-rich red clay that gives this fictional landscape, and the movie, its name. That thick scarlet goo is the unsung star of Crimson Peak, flowing with unsettling slowness down walls and bubbling eerily in underground vats. (The glorious production design is by Thomas E. Sanders.)
But Jessica Chastain gives the scene-stealing ooze a run for its money. She’s had to play a supportive trouper in too many consecutive roles, helping Matt Damon get home from Mars or helping Matthew McConaughey get home from Gargantua (where he’s escaping ... Matt Damon). It’s with relish that Chastain transforms into the morbid and delusional Lucille, treading the creaky floorboards of Allerdale Hall with a cameo brooch at her throat and a forbiddingly large ring of house keys at her waist. Chastain’s performance, all masterfully controlled facial tics and smoldering rage, approaches camp without losing sight of her character’s humanity. Lucille Sharpe may be a deeply damaged woman, but she has the courage of her (twisted) convictions.
The frail yet indomitable Wasikowska is just right in the Joan Fontaine role of a naive young bride slowly discovering she’s been had. And Tom Hiddleston, tall, pale, and hollow-cheeked, is the man of every would-be ghost’s dreams. If he invited you to live in his decaying ancestral home, you’d go, even if the house was located atop a reservoir of seething bright-red liquid that seemed unnervingly symbolic of … something.
One sizable complaint about Crimson Peak: For a film made by one of cinema’s great creature-imaginers, its ghosts are not all that scary. With their flayed skin and long pointy fingers, they’re not what you’d ideally want to see on the other side of a slowly opening door, but they lack the nightmarish specificity of earlier del Toro creations like the horrific Pale Man of Pan’s Labyrinth. Part of the problem may be simply that these ghosts are digitally rendered; eerie as they may look, they never have the distinctive individuality of a character played by a human actor (like del Toro favorite Doug Jones, who lent his graceful shape to both Pale Man and the fish-man Abe Sapien of the Hellboy films). Nor do Crimson Peak’s ghosts really serve to embody the characters’ inner states in the manner of, say, the title character of last year’s breakout horror film The Babadook. “The ghosts are just metaphors,” Edith assures a prospective publisher of her horror manuscript early in the film. But the ones she encounters later on are even less substantial than that. They’re decorative elements, supernatural throw pillows scattered around the gargantuan fixer-upper that is Allerdale Hall.
Once you’ve fallen under Crimson Peak’s spell, though—if you do fall—the relative insignificance of the ghost-story subplot hardly matters. It’s the raw struggle for power and love among the human characters, and the swoonily phantasmagoric atmosphere in which that conflict unfolds, that takes you back to a time—or a few different times—when Goths were Goths.
*Correction, Oct. 15, 2015: This article originally misidentified Peter Cushing as Hammer’s longtime Dracula. He was Hammer’s longtime Van Helsing. (Return.)