Horror films have become such a stereotypical genre, so full of idiotic teenagers and torture porn, that when anybody dares to do something aside from the norm, one would be wise to take notice. When said horror film is directed by a filmmaking genius such as Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy I&II, Pan’s Labyrinth), you drop everything and pay attention. (Or, judging from the weekend’s Box Office numbers, dish out hard-earned cash for the safer, Jack Black-fronted bet)
Crimson Peak might not satisfy your average moviegoer accustomed to the modern era of horror; it’s a throwback to the days of old when mood and atmosphere were favored over gore and non-stop scares. It’s also a visual feast, both hypnotizing and haunting in its imagery. I’d expect nothing less from del Toro, but he never ceases to amaze me with the sheer amount of detail and effort he and his team put into the cinematography and production design of his films. Crimson Peak is no exception. It’s a haunted house film filtered through del Toro’s lens. If that preceding sentence doesn’t get you pumped, you may want to look elsewhere…you heathen.
Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a budding young writer haunted by the ghost of her mother, who warns her to “Beware of Crimson Peak.” She becomes romantically involved with the dashing entrepreneur Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who marries her and whisks her away to his dilapidated mansion, which just so happens to be haunted by creepy ghosts and an even creepier Jessica Chastain, who gives an affecting turn as Sharpe’s conniving sister, Lucille. As Edith explores the history of the home and the Sharpe family, she begins to realize that not all is as it seems and her life may be in grave danger.
del Toro has gone on record emphasizing that Crimson Peak isn’t so much a horror film as it is a gothic romance, and its thoughtful tone, careful suspense-building, and focus on character development reinforce that notion. But, despite the slower pace, it is utterly captivating and brimming with moments of sheer terror. Even in the more low-key sequences, I couldn’t shake a feeling of discomfort. I was always on edge, unsettled by the nightmarish ghosts and settings. Everything is so beautiful you won’t be able to turn away, even during the more horrific moments.
Story-wise, Crimson Peak offers little in the way of anything new. We’ve seen this tale before in various renditions and it really does feel like a classic haunted house tale, more akin to the horror cinema of the 30s and 40s. del Toro even visited similar themes in his 2001 masterpiece The Devil’s Backbone. But these ideas weaved through the filter of del Toro’s unparalleled imagination feel fresh. This is undoubtedly one of the best looking films released this year, and perhaps the whole decade thus far.
Performances are strong across the board with Wasikowska serving as the film’s solid emotional core. Hiddleston is charming and mysterious and Chastain is effectively unsettling, in a way that doesn’t come across as goofy or overwrought. Though they’re always in danger of being swallowed up by the imagery, del Toro never fully loses sight of them, and their performances keep us emotionally invested in the story.
del Toro is a master of his craft and there’s nothing quite like the experience of seeing him stretching his proverbial cinematic muscles. Crimson Peak is further evidence of his genius and a fine horror film in its own right. If you’re a fan of del Toro’s work, then by all means see this one. You won’t be disappointed. If you’re looking for your more standard horror fare, you may want to move along. If you’re an open minded viewer, however, and willing to be swept up by Crimson Peak’s hypnotizing, haunting visual poetry and del Toro’s throwback method of storytelling, you’ll find a whole lot to love. While I can understand someone being put off by the slower build-up and lack of gore, I can’t understand how someone can look at the final product and walk away disappointed. This is the kind of sophisticated movie-making we need more of in this day and age.