Don’t let the trailers fool you – Crimson Peak is no horror movie – yet its creator, Guillermo del Toro, steeps it in a chilling Gothic atmosphere that certainly gives it many spooky flourishes. Really, though, this is a Gothic tragedy-romance-mystery, set in the very early 20th century, and centers around Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring author and the daughter of a wealthy businessman. The film doesn’t move us to its titular mansion for a good 40 minutes, instead giving us a good feel for Wasikowska’s Cushing, her love interest Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). What follows is del Toro’s love letter to the haunted house pictures of old, eschewing demonic possession and any remote sense of “realism” in favor of mood, atmosphere, theatricality, and storytelling.
We follow Wasikowska, ethereal as ever, through this mystery. She’s our gateway into Crimson Peak (officially titled Allerdale Hall), her ghost like presence giving real vulnerability to the character, and making us feel it in the audience. Hiddleston and Chastain are both fantastic as always, the former deftly handling his character’s layers and conflictions, the latter successfully conveying both an icy chill and simmering heat simultaneously. All three stars are theatrical and over-the-top, much like the real star of film – its visuals. Crimson Peak is a triumph of production design, decoration, and costuming, with del Toro capturing it all in the most imaginative and exciting ways (I especially loved the consistent inclusion of irises to transition from scene to scene). It is so relentlessly theatrical – red clay marks moist walls, the mansion shudders and groans from age, walls are various colors of rot and stain, holes in the ceiling allow falling leaves and snow to gather in the foyer, and in the winter the clay turns snow blood red. Crimson Peak is a ravishing experience, the result of del Toro’s eerie, imaginative vision. All of this heightens the fact that the CGI ghosts, while often suitably chilling, feel painfully artificial. Ultimately, del Toro, his crew, and his actors win out with their earnestness and commitment to their Gothic creation.
It is similarly earnest in its storytelling, blending intrigue, chill, and romance with utter conviction. Unlike many period pieces, especially those paying heavy homage to films of old, Crimson Peak doesn’t contain so much as a shred of irony, which is remarkably refreshing. Equally refreshing is its handling of the ghosts – here a wailing, bone chilling presence of melancholy and dark pasts as opposed to vicious villains. If the story is a bit slight (and it is) it is elevated by the striking, vibrant, colorful world that del Toro has created – where every frame bursts with meticulous attention to detail.
★★★★ out of 5