With Crimson Peak, director Guillermo Del Toro delivers an sumptuous, operatic, and most certainly blood-soaked homage to grand Gothic romance cinema of the past. Thanks to its breathtaking visual style, a strong, literate script and compelling performances from its leads, the film remains riveting and suspenseful despite it at times being a bit predictable. For the more discerning and well-traveled film fan, it’s a movie experience you’ll find yourself seduced by, even though you recognize all the tropes at work. For the casual movie goer, it’s just gruesomely gorgeous fun.
The setting is Buffalo, New York in 1901. Young American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland), who since she was a child has had an affinity for perceiving the supernatural and who has since channeled her imagination and intellect into the pursuit of writing, finds herself courted by two very compelling suitors. One is her childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), a gentleman scholar who has the approval and support of Edith’s protective father, Sir Carter (Jim Beaver). The other is Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an Englishman new to America who immediately draws Edith’s attention with his charm and immediate appreciation of her artistic ambitions.
In the course of Thomas courting her, Edith also comes to know his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who is ever by Thomas’s side and shares her younger brother’s ambition to rebuild their family’s fortune through a machine Thomas has invented that he hopes will revolutionize clay extraction for use as building materials. Edith’s fascination with Thomas soon blossoms into love, and after Sir Carter’s untimely demise, she leaves America with the Sharps as they return to the ancestral home in England, Allerdale Hall, a bleak and ominous-looking manor sitting alone atop a snow-covered hill in the middle of nowhere that itself sits above a substantial red clay deposit. The house proves both mesmerizing and terrifying to Edith, with red clay oozing from the floors and staining the white snow surrounding the building as the entire house slowly sinks into the earth with every heavy footfall. Snow and patches of sunlight fall into the decrepit halls from holes in the high ceilings, and shifting, shadowy forms creeping through the corridors just outside of her vision, invisible seemingly to all but her.
Settling into her new life with the Sharps, its not long before Edith comes face to horrifying face with the shadows that haunt the enormous house. Those encounters, in turn, lead her to clues regarding the family’s secret history, a history that brother and sister each have ample reason to keep hidden from her. As she peels away layer after layer of deceit, it becomes painfully clear that something horrible happened at Allendale Hall, and will happen again should Edith not be able to escape from her new “home.”
Visually, Crimson Peak is yet another masterwork from Del Toro, the creator of Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim, a seemingly endless delight for the eyes, particularly for fans of period and costume dramas and classic horror films. While the elaborate Victorian Era costumes and the design of the film’s ghosts is as impressive as you might expect from a Del Toro production, without question the most striking element on film here is Allendale Hall itself, its every hallway, winding staircase, and darkened room exuding mystery and menace. In every appreciable way, the house is as much a character in the film as the people living in it, a living, breathing, decaying monument symbolizing the fallen grandeur and internal corruption of the Sharps themselves. Imagine what the Addams Family or the Munsters might imagine their ultimate dream home to be, then make it even creepier, and you’ll have a sense of what this house looks and feels like. It simply must be seen to be believed.
While the house might be the most memorable character in Crimson Peak, the actors themselves are pretty compelling here as well, in particular the lead trio of Wasikowska, Hiddleston, and Chastain. as Wasikowska brings a pitch perfect blend of curiosity, naiveté, and strength of will to Edith, while Hiddleston, fresh from playing Asgard’s master mischief maker Loki in Marvel’s the Avengers and the Thor films, proves to be an equally perfect fit as the manipulative but emotionally conflicted Thomas. Chastain, in turn, is barely contained malice bubbling under a thin veneer of English civility — she chills in her every scene, with her every word and gesture, even when those gestures resemble affection.
What makes their work collectively here so remarkable is that though the characters themselves are pastiches of classic Victorian characters from the great novels of the period — Edith reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, Thomas every bit a Byronic hero akin to Jane Eyre‘s Edward Rochester, and Lucille drawing from the same darkness as Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic” — the actors bring those characters to life in a way that’s vibrant and accessible to modern audiences. (Oddly, Charlie Hunnam is the odd man out here, the British actor in the production not allowed to use his native accent, whose character’s story arc most resembles that of Raoul from The Phantom of the Opera, and is similarly underdeveloped and bland.) Put another way: if you love period films and their romantic storylines, you’ll recognize the character types in play in Crimson Peak, but thanks to won’t look or sound cliché to you as the film progresses. And if you’re not the sort to sit down and binge on whole seasons of “Downton Abbey”, you’ll still get caught up in the wicked game being played throughout the film, because it’s just executed that well.
All that said, it’s hard to imagine a film like Crimson Peak, with its R-rating and admittedly narrow appeal in terms of the tastes of the masses at the box office, being much of a success financially when set up against more family-friendly and upbeat fare. Why is that relevant? Because it means that Crimson Peak might not be in theaters very long, and that means you shouldn’t wait long to see it. It’s beautifully crafted entertainment from one of this generation’s most artistically-gifted directors, and it should experienced in the dark, on the big screen, where you can lose yourself in the macabre splendor of the production, be appropriately spooked when its ghosts come calling, and on the edge of your seat as its bloody mayhem gets rolling.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, and Jim Beaver. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro.
Running Time: 119 minutes
Rated R for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.