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Crimson Peak isn’t a horror movie. It’s a ghost story. Yes, they’re different.

The new film understands ghost stories are about regret, not scares.

Mia Wasikowska and a bunch of candles star in Crimson Peak, a film that isn't particularly scary but isn't trying to be.
Mia Wasikowska and a bunch of candles star in Crimson Peak, a film that isn't particularly scary but isn't trying to be.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The knock against Crimson Peak, the gorgeous new haunted house psychodrama playing around the country, is that it's not scary. Beautiful, sure. Spooky, maybe. But scary? Not at all.

Take, for instance, this review by Rick Bentley of the Fresno Bee:

More attention to the terror and less to the Victorian-style tale of love, betrayal and murder would have made the film far scarier.

This is fine as it goes. If you go into Crimson Peak expecting to be absolutely terrified, you'll be disappointed. There are a couple of creepy sequences, but they're so telegraphed by the score and camerawork that you won't be suddenly overwhelmed with suspense, gripping your seat in terror.

Yet at the same time, this clearly isn't what Crimson Peak is up to. Despite hailing from horror maestro Guillermo del Toro and featuring a couple of jittery, wispy ghouls, Crimson Peak isn't a horror movie. It's a ghost story.

And yes, there's a difference.

A ghost story is less about scares than about secrets and regrets

Spooky house. Crimson Peak.
Edith moves into a big, creepy house. Naturally, ghosts make an appearance.

Del Toro, who co-wrote the film with Matthew Robbins, certainly knows his various creepy subgenres. If the disappointing Pacific Rim (his last film) was an elaborate mashup of dozens of giant monster movies, then this is an elaborate mashup of the haunted house tales popular around the turn of the 20th century and, by extension, the films made of those stories in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Indeed, the movie it may be most reminiscent of is the classic 1961 film The Innocents, itself an adaptation of the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw.



And the thing to understand about a proper British ghost story is that the ghosts are often incidental to the action. Yes, they're there, but they're a way of making the story's psychological subtext into text, the lurching reminders of the past that threaten to uncover long-buried secrets.

This stems from the fact that in their traditional form, ghosts can't really hurt you. They can scare you, sure, and they can put on quite a show. But they can't physically harm you, because they're trapped on some other plane of existence. Crimson Peak plays by these rules, for the most part. The ghosts touch heroine Edith (Mia Wasikowska) here and there, but they can't really harm her, only scare her. In time, she starts to realize they might even be on her side.

And lord knows Edith needs someone on her side. Recently married to a baronet named Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) after the mysterious death of her father, Edith finds herself locked up in the wheezy, drafty old Allerdale Hall with Thomas and his vituperative sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). The three of them orbit each other endlessly, drawing closer and closer, waiting for the collision we know must come. Can you blame visitors from beyond the grave for wanting to help the heroine?

Edith herself points this out to someone early in the film. An aspiring novelist, she says that her book isn't really a ghost story. It's a story with a ghost in it. That describes both Crimson Peak and the genre it loosely belongs to.

The haunted house is always more important than the spirits who live there

Look at that creepy haunted house!
Allerdale Hall is one of del Toro's finest creations.

Even those who've wrongly panned Crimson Peak sing praises of its production design. Del Toro has long been one of our most visually sumptuous directors, and Allerdale is one of his finest creations, a moldy castle atop a clay-filled hill that's slowly sinking into the mud.

There's not enough money to repair the roof, so falling leaves and, later, snow drift into the open areas. There's a groaning old elevator and pipes that seem to whisper Edith's name, to say nothing of the giant vats of red, goopy clay in the basement.

All of which is to say that Allerdale is the perfect setting for a ghost story, because ghost stories require houses with almost more personality than those who live in them — both alive and dead. Haunted houses are guardians of mysteries, keepers of secrets that are not easily learned. They also often seem to be alive, as does Allerdale. When the east wind blows, the fireplaces surge, and the house seems to breathe. It's not a place. It's an entity.

That's intentional. In many ghost stories (and almost all Gothic romances, another genre Crimson Peak flirts with), the house itself is less a physical location than a manifestation of the central evils that are being hidden. There is almost no way you won't guess many of the secrets locked away within this movie, but then, that's because it all but telegraphs them to you from frame one.

And even if it wasn't, the house would be. The last crumbling edifice of the Sharpe family, it stands as a reminder of how far they've fallen and how hard times have become. If that didn't clue you in to what ultimately lies buried at the heart of the film, nothing will.

A ghost story is a tragedy

Jessica Chastain in Crimson Peak.
Jessica Chastain goes in for high camp in Crimson Peak. It works!

But then, Crimson Peak is also a tragedy, one in which the protagonist uncovers the fatal flaw of the family she just so happens to have married into, one in which the incestuous subtext between too-close siblings from other ghost stories is brazenly made text as the film heads for its climax.

This means that the fact that it's easy to predict ends up being part of what it's trying to do. The ghosts, after all, know everything, and they're on our hero's side as she delves into the house's history. Tragedies gain their weight from the way they unfold, the way we come to understand how unavoidable the final, horrible moments truly were, no matter what any of the characters did.

Look, for instance, at del Toro's best film and richest ghost story, The Devil's Backbone. Even if the ghost in that film has moments where he's legitimately terrifying, he's still just a little boy, and his existence is a constant echo of the wartime reality the children in the film are forced to live through. The secrets of his creation don't weigh as heavily on the film as the sheer fact that these young boys have to live through the horrors of war. Tragedy, not horror.

So, yes, Crimson Peak isn't scary, but that doesn't bother me. I think in time it will come to be seen as one of del Toro's better films, one that exudes confidence in how it tells its true story through visuals. It's suffused with psychological richness and a melancholy sense of regret, and it features some of the most beautiful visuals of the year.

And above all else, it knows one thing. It's not a ghost story. It's a story with a ghost in it.

Crimson Peak is playing throughout the country. See it!

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