Halloween is a month-long celebration that spans decades of movie history, from Southern Gothic to psychothriller. The film beat decided to embrace this history, dedicating each week of October to a different time period in horror. This series celebrates every nightmare you had when you were ten, every creak in the floorboards of an old house, every piece of candy stuck to the inside of your pillowcase and everything that keeps you up at night. For this week, we’ve skipped the rather underwhelming ’00s in horror and are rushing our way to the present.
— Mary Elizabeth Johnson, Daily Arts Writer
I might live in a haunted house.
In the middle of the night, sometimes, I wake up to groans, creaks, murmurs and even screams. The bathroom lights tend to flicker and roaches crawl from the walls. Once, as I sat watching TV with my housemate, a cup fell from an end table with no prompting, splashing a glass-worth of bright red wine onto our faded white carpet.
Or, instead of acknowledging that I live in the basement of a worn-down, roach-infested college house with disrespectful neighbors, I like to pretend that I reside in a Victorian mansion, where specters flit through the dark halls, creaking floors and rattling windows. Maybe, as 2020 finally grinds to a brutal end, I like to pretend I live in a haunted house instead of a haunted world.
There’s a unique comfort in the Gothic. The genre is rooted in 19th-century Romanticism, and Gothic horrors haunt sweeping, misty moors, sprawling manors and star-crossed lovers. Characters are terrorized by ghosts through the night, but come morning sip tea in porcelain cups, walk flowery garden paths and exchange devotionals in the glow of a roaring fireplace. In Gothic fiction, the blood-chilling coexists with the heart-warming, and one enriches the other.
Perhaps that’s why I turned to Guillermo Del Toro’s (“The Shape of Water”) “Crimson Peak” after Washtenaw County announced a two-week stay-at-home order for undergraduates at the University of Michigan. Watching it over Zoom with my best friend, I escaped the real threats of death, disease, the impending election and spending two weeks shut in with my housemates (mostly kidding) and entered a world of lush, looming estates, ghosts and violent love.
“Crimson Peak” blends the unhinged passion and expansive vistas of Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights,” the psychological terror of Henry James’s “Turn of The Screw,” the manic science of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and a dollop of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” to create a modern yet delightfully familiar Gothic production, told with Del Toro’s signature cinematic excellence.
It centers on Edith, played by Mia Wasikowska (“The Devil All The Time”), a girl in late 19th-century Buffalo, New York, who writes ghost stories (she also may have seen a ghost or two herself). When someone mocks her literary pursuits, saying “Austen died a spinster,” Edith replies, “I’d rather be Mary Shelley and die a widow.” However, Edith eventually falls for an English baron named Thomas Sharpe, played by Tom Hiddleston (“Thor”), a man of brooding, Byronic mystery.
The plot’s twists and turns are best left to the film to whisper with its dark red tongue, but one seeking the Gothic insanity of stories like Poe’s “The Fall of The House of Usher” won’t be disappointed. I’ll just say that Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as Sharp’s sister Lucille gives Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla a run for her money.
Every Gothic film needs a haunted mansion, and “Crimson Peak” doesn’t disappoint. Allerdale Hall, Sharpe’s estate, was built almost in full for the film. It’s a wonder. Like all great Gothic residences, the house is slowly crumbling — over the years, Allerdale has sunk into an underground clay deposit. Red clay seeps through the floorboards, which squishes under the characters’ feet and drips down the walls like bloody wax. Even the water runs red. The ceiling is caved in, and a freezing wind gives the towering house a labored, wheezing breath.
Del Toro’s camera expertly weaves through Allerdale’s dark, cold and empty halls and one is pulled along, breathlessly, from horror to horror, ghost to ghost. The ghosts themselves tread the line between beauty and horror, stalking the night with a uniquely physical gait: They are coated with the same red clay that smears the walls.
Watching “Crimson Peak” is an exercise in chilly comfort. Every frame oozes with color, be it candy-colored gowns or cherry red pits of bubbling clay, even when the lights go out. The horror cuts like winter wind, but never extinguishes the film’s Romantic flicker.
This Halloween, if you, like me, have the somewhat bizarre desire to be scared, it’s a good idea to stay away from anything about plague, dystopias, isolated cabins, monstrous organisms, grief or psychopathic men. Why scare yourself with what’s already on the nightly news? No, the only proper Halloween film for Halloween 2020, offering solace while tingling one’s spine, is “Crimson Peak.”
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at email@example.com.