Crimson Peak is Guillermo del Toro’s apology for making us sit through Pacific Rim. Where Pacific Rim was designed by the 12 year old boy in him; Crimson Peak was designed by the 12 year old girl in him. A gothic romance, Crimson Peak is all about decaying mansions and withered aristocracy, sweeping heroic love and bitter villainous betrayal. It’s Penny Dreadful meets Jane Eyre. It’s more my speed than Pacific Rim ever was.
So, let’s get this out of the way: Crimson Peak is technically not a horror movie. It has ghosts and scares and tension but it isn’t technically a horror movie. It’s gothic romance. Or to paraphrase the film itself, “it’s a story with ghosts in it.”
The bulk of the story is set in a decaying English mansion, full of angry and restless ghosts, but the story takes it’s time getting there. Our gateway into this world is Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a writer, born into a wealthy 19th century family in New York. No one takes her stories with ghosts in them seriously, even, as she passionately explains that the ghosts are metaphors. Into her frustrated life swoops the tall, dark and handsome Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), looking for money to build a machine that can extract the red clay from beneath his decrepit ancestral home in England and return his family to the aristocracy. He dances with her, he enjoys her writing and he proposes to her. When Edith’s father dies in a brutal accident, she goes off with him and his mysteriously creepy sister, Lady Lucille, to live at Allerdale Manor. At the manor, you see Del Toro’s style flourish and come to life.
Del Toro has built a career on loving and showing sympathy towards the grotesque and that is visible in his design of the ghosts. Not your traditional apparitions, these ghost are practical effects that are ruined by the digital dressings done to them. Something about digital effects in movie that is primarily practical and a period piece that just bothers me. The CGI just stands out in the wrong way. However, to give you an idea of how they look, they’re all contorted flesh and amorphous vapour. Their designs and movement reflect the pain of their death and their anguish of being trapped between worlds, when they appear, they capture your attention.
Crimson Peak is an entrancing film. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. The clean period detail, with sudden splashes of gore is captivating. Once, the film moves to Allerdale Manor, I was in love. The deep, creepy gothic detail of the estate needs to be experienced. The house literally feels alive. Not only does it creek but it bleeds. It is built on this red clay and that clay is literally bleeding from the walls. The house is beautiful in the most awful of ways.
As of writing this review, I’ve noticed Crimson Peak is receiving a lot shit for its story. It’s too generic and paint by numbers, etc, and I’d agree with most of those comments. Yes, Crimson Peak’s story is lacklustre, and sometimes characters do suffer from a lapse of sound judgement. However, that’s just part of the genre. It’s an experience first. One where the audience just sinks and drifts with the plot. To appreciate Crimson Peak means meeting its heightened and deliberately old-fashioned storytelling halfway. It feels like a piece of victorian literature, where the world is rich and entrancing but simplicity of the story allows anyone to fall under its hypnotic spell.
The real surprise of the film may not be the plot but in fact the films stars and the emotions they create. The real star of the movie may be the house and the gorgeous production design but the cast manages to match them but devouring the scenery. Hiddleston effortlessly plays the aristocrat, capturing the right amount warm, loving and scheming, so that when his eventual revelations take place, you buy into all of it. You will fall in love with Hiddleston and then he will break your heart, like he does Edith’s. Wasikowska’s Edith is the stark contrast to Hiddleston’s Sharpe. It’s a hard role, mainly cause the plot is designed that the audience always knows what’s happening before Edith does but Wasikowska imbues her with true life and, what’s more, with deep intelligence. We are with her every step of the way, even steps we know she shouldn’t be taking. It’s like she walked out of our gothic and Victorian fantasies. Rounding out the cast is Jessica Chastain as Sharpe’s sister Lucille. Her devolution into madness is marvellous, the less you know about her the better.
Del Toro’s gothic and melodramatic world of Crimson Peak is bloody, shadowy and totally fucked-up. And yet I’ll keep coming back to this fact; it isn’t scary. However, it is foreboding and menacing and every frame promises violence and terror. The handful of violent acts that earn the film its R rating are top-notch and will inspire no shortage of seat-squirming. This movie ratchets up the dread and builds a story where anything could go wrong at any moment. And yet, Del Toro should be commended for refusing to shove countless lousy jump scares into every possible moment.
Nothing about Crimson Peak feels half-assed and cheap, but sadly it won’t play well with casual moviegoers who are looking for scares to scream their heads off. But if you’re a lover of the movie monster and the gothic melodrama of the past, then Crimson Peak will scratch that very niche itch. Guillermo del Toro spent a lot of money to make a movie, targeted at a niche audience, people like me. People who disliked his profoundly dumb and shallow Pacific Rim and was waiting for the director to return to monsters on a more personal scale.
Score: 4 out of 5.