Fresh off of not making Pacific Rim 2 (please just let it happen), Guillermo del Toro is back on the scene with Crimson Peak, a haunting melodrama that’s more of a love-letter to the really classic horror greats. Naturally, the visuals are nothing short of gorgeous, this is seriously one of the best looking movies of 2015, but Crimson Peak’s slow burn, well-mannered style of ambient horror may not send shivers down everyone’s spine.
Crimson Peak opens on struggling female writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) as she tries to sell her Shelley-esque ghost story in the turn of the 20th century. The twist is that she can also see ghosts. Sometimes. Once before. Anyway, after continually ignoring her friend and would-be suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), Edith meets the enigmatic Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his cold, definitely weird sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Courtship and business deals happen, and Edith finds herself betrothed to the rather charming Mr. Sharpe, following him to his English estate, Allerdale Hall (or… Crimson Peak!). From there, the story takes a very sharp turn from the borderline Jane Austen first half, as Edith becomes implicated in a sinister plot involving red clay, ghosts, and murder most foul. Also there’s some sort of subplot with Dr. McMichael back in America, but it’s dreadfully uneventful, only serving as a reason for him to show up in the third act. Luckily, things pick up in the final act, with del Toro bringing back his signature hyper-realistic violence to the forefront, a stunning contrast to the otherwise antiquated storytelling.
While the story may be a touch lethargic for modern-day movie-goers, it makes a great deal of sense for what del Toro is trying to accomplish. It’s a clear homage to some of the original horror powerhouses, features like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That being said, it’s certainly not for everyone (nor is it marketed as such.) If you come in expecting a horror movie full of jumps and torture and the like, you will be disappointed.
That being said, Crimson Peak carries with it some truly excellent performances, as well as some… not-so excellent ones. The true standouts of the film are Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as the Sharpe siblings. The former shines in what might be the most Tom Hiddleston role ever written/performed. Seriously, it just makes sense, and it’s exactly what you would expect from him. Likewise Chastain manages to capture a character who constantly straddles the line between unhinged and reserved, and is riveting to watch. Wasikowska’s performance was overall serviceable, but sometimes errs on too reserved, a problem that seems to lie in the script itself, rather than the actress. The real problem child of the cast is Charlie Hunnam, whose Dr. McMichael is incredibly flat, and more focused on seeming as stiff and old-timey as possible that I came to dread whenever he was onscreen.
Writing and performance aside, this is a sexy piece of filmmaking. Visually, del Toro let’s loose, with sprawling set designs that feel at once grounded and fantastic, open and claustrophobic, and really stretches the idea of what a haunted house can look like. To add to that, the colors are some of the most vibrant I’ve ever seen, and really, what I’ve come to expect from del Toro’s work. In addition, the editing provides some of the best shout-outs to the aforementioned classic horror films in recent memory. Using slick transitions throughout (in particular, closing in on an image at the end of a shot) one would think that Fritz Lang might have been behind the camera. Honestly, words don’t do it justice.
As visually extraordinary as Crimson Peak is, it’s not without it’s flaws. Though this can be attributed as poor marketing, I’m of the opinion that there’s very little interest in a true Gothic Romance. Though it’s clearly emulating the stories of old, the sluggish pace can be off-putting at times, and really draw you out of the stunning world that del Toro created. Though certainly worth a watch, just remember, Crimson Peak isn’t a ghost story; it’s a story with ghosts in it.