Guillermo del Toro is one of the better directors working in Hollywood today. He also happens to have a genuine love for the horror genre and ghost stories. At this point, he could probably sleepwalk his way through a horror film and have it be halfway decent. While that is not the case here, Crimson Peak does feel like a bit of a lay-up for del Toro, displaying some ghostly imagery and boasting some fine visual effects, but if you have seen any of his earlier films it will feel very familiar.
Set at the beginning of the 20th century, Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the daughter of a rich Buffalo businessman (Jim Beaver) who ends up falling for the charms of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet from England who is traveling with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) seeking to secure funding for a clay mining invention to boost his family’s red clay mining business. When a mysterious death strikes her father, she marries Thomas and returns with him to Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe family estate, famous for its red clay that turns white snow in the winter red to make it look like a crimson peak. Soon after her arrival, Edith begins to see mysterious apparitions and has growing suspicions about her husband and her sister-in-law and the history of the house.
Del Toro has created a visually vibrant film. The house is built on red clay, is slowly sinking into the red clay, and the clay seeps down the walls, making it look like the walls are bleeding. The architecture is also very gothic as well, dark walls with large paintings and portraits hanging; dark wooden staircases and hallways; and vaunted ceilings with spiked protrusions. The costumes are also very excessive and billowy, especially Edith’s clothes.
The story feels very much in the vein of other Spanish language ghost stories, both from del Toro and several of his contemporaries, where it’s not so much a ghost story as it is a story with ghosts in it. As happens to be the case in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, the supernatural is haunting but not necessarily a threat or the primary threat of the story. The story proves to be a tad conventional as Edith investigates and explores the house, venturing into parts of the building that Lucille has said are off-limits because they are dangerous. It is interesting too, that del Toro has Edith be a fledgling writer and a lot of her writing and the comments of others on her writing serve as meta commentary on the story of Crimson Peak itself, from her novel being a story with ghosts in it and a male love interest who is mysterious and conflicted.
The film also employs great visual effects. The ghosts have an ethereal quality to them that reminded me of The Devil’s Backbone, mainly because when they appear they have wisps of ghostly blood trailing off of them from a wound. It’s an effective special effect, but does feel like del Toro is repeating himself. It’s also a film with only a few scares and jumps, but it does a good job creating an atmosphere and setting that feels haunted.
Wasikowska’s Edith is someone who is tuned in to the spirit world. Early in the film she is visited as a child by the ghost of her recently deceased mother, warning her to “beware of Crimson Peak.” Wasikowska, Hiddelston, and Chastain are three really good, young actors and they all give good performances here. There is a considerable coldness that Lucille displays toward Edith which is never fully understood until everything is ultimately revealed. American audiences have not had much exposure to Hiddleston outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and here he is given a conflicted role as someone who seems to genuinely love Edith, but also may have ulterior motives too. Charlie Hunnam also has a supporting role as Dr. Alan McMichael, a childhood friend of Edith’s who has concerns for her situation.
Crimson Peak utilizes its extreme Gothic setting for great atmosphere and sets the stage for what could have been a modern masterpiece and del Toro could have cemented his status as a master of the genre. As it is, it’s just good, nothing truly groundbreaking either in its storytelling or visuals like The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth were. While there is a haunting, dark beauty to it all, it can’t help but feel like del Toro is retracing his steps rather than challenging himself or broadening his canvas.
Rating: 3 out of 5