Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Written by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Produced by Del Toro, Callum Green, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull. Music by Fernando Velázquez. Photographed by Dan Laustsen. Edited by Bernat Vilaplana. Production designed by Thomas E. Sanders. Costumes designed by Kate Hawley. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam.
Crimson Peak, the new film from director Guillermo Del Toro, is a gothic horror tale in the classical sense. “It’s not a ghost story,” our heroine says at one point. “It’s a story with ghosts in it.” Yes. She, a budding novelist, is describing her new manuscript, but she is also describing Crimson Peak, which hews closely to cherished gothic traditions. In such stories, the supernatural is used judiciously, overlaid onto narratives of disturbing human behavior in order to enhance them without overtaking them. The spirits are important, but they are not the point. These stories often feature distraught female protagonists. There is sincere romance. Social conventions of the day are strictly observed, serving as counterpoint to joint themes of sexual repression and perverse secrets amid the upper class. And crucially, there are reserved key roles for haunted, eerie landscapes and architecture that uncannily conjure silent dread.
Crimson Peak is nothing if not dutiful in deploying these tropes. But Del Toro, a gifted fantasy storyteller with an unerringly rich cinematic eye, has embroidered every frame of his love letter to this genre. And he has cherry-picked a bevy of influences, some literary (Poe, Collins, fairy tales, both Bronte sisters), some filmic (half the back catalog of the UK’s Hammer horror studio) and yet has filtered it through his distinct sensibilities without making it a bloodless pastiche. Crimson Peak is a marvel: a gorgeously-crafted work that thrums with vision and unity of purpose. How rare it is to see a genre picture of this kind made on this scale, let alone this well.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing, a debutante and frustrated novelist in 19th century Buffalo, NY. She is a free-thinker who chafes against the limited options and high expectations the era places upon young women, but everything clicks for her, momentarily, when she meets the mysterious, mesmerizing Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet who speaks of vague industrialist ambitions. His sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is cold and unpleasant, and she eyes the lovestruck Edith like a spider. Thomas soon offers his hand in marriage to the girl, just as a family tragedy leaves her most in need of such an arrangement. Together, they retire to Thomas’ family home in the English moors, a decrepit mansion that becomes a stage for ghost sightings, ones that Edith soon perceives as warnings. As Edith begins to investigate her new husband’s past, Lucille becomes more cruel and vicious, and Thomas seems poignantly caught between the two women.
The mansion is a superbly-realized movie location, a baroquely-designed nightmare of rich, sickly dilapidation: a hole in the ceiling spills leaves and snow perpetually into the foyer, while the clay mine below causes red ooze to seep through the floorboards and coat the grounds like a bloody blanket. The house is literally, slowly, sinking into the earth and the surrounding moors are chilly and bleak. Dan Lausten’s cinematography captures ornate and beautifully intricate spaces that have succumbed to disease and corruption; shots caress Edith’s face as a sole source of warmth in these ghastly interiors, while her two cohabitants (or captors?) are lit more like porcelain dolls. At one point Thomas and Edith make an unscheduled stay at a ramshackle inn, and the ensuing night slakes multiple hungers in Thomas, who basks in Edith’s glow as his inner conflict worsens. Colors are splashed on the screen in gorgeous fashion. Iconography comes into play: cauldrons filled with ooze, iron bars and keys, snowfalls that envelop the country like a malicious cloak. Del Toro, a master visual storyteller doesn’t “make” movies. He paints them, marshaling an army of cast and crew to make it all seem effortless.
This is rich, dark and rewarding filmmaking, bolstered by strong performances that refuse to get lost. Wasichowska makes a fine receptacle for the story’s air of tragedy, Hiddleston is perfectly cast as the morally complicated Thomas, and Chastain is in exquisite form as Lucille, walking an actor’s tightrope with absolute ease. In lesser hands, Crimson Peak would become laughable. But in the hands of absolute masters, it creates an experience so vivid and rare that many filmgoers will be grateful to have it.