There’s nothing quite like a Guillermo del Toro film. He’s a true auteur whose work is unmistakable and, as his films have gotten bigger, they’ve stayed just as personal, using those greater resources to totally immerse himself in the world of the genre he’s exploring. Hence Pacific Rim’s giddy excitement about being a massive movie about massive robots punching massive aliens.
Del Toro has made a Gothic romance that is a painstaking and operatic tribute to films like Rebecca, The Innocents and even Jane Eyre. Tropes like the literally buried secrets, calculating aristocrats and messages of dire warning are deployed with absolute love and sincerity.
The reverence with which he approaches and pays homage to those reference points may alienate some, but for those who love the genre, or are willing to be carried away by the filmmaker’s undeniable skill, this is an utterly beautiful and gloriously creepy film.
In turn-of-the-century New York, young author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is struggling to convince publishers to take her ghost stories seriously. After all, she’s seen them all her life. The tall, dark and handsome Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) is taken with Edith’s writing, but more so with her, and it becomes apparent that he not only hopes to return to England with funds for the invention that could save his fortune, but with a new bride.
Their attraction is mutual, and after a tragic turn of events Edith quickly marries Thomas and travels with him and his icy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to the north of England and the cavernous (and definitely haunted) Allerdale Hall.
She’s warned that certain parts of the house are unsafe, and as the weather worsens, Edith realises that the unquiet spirits of the house aren’t the only things she needs to worry about.
Crimson Peak is a stunning sensory experience. The cinematography, production design and costumes are impossibly beautiful, and Allerdale Hall, where blood-red clay oozes from every surface, is a triumph. The omnipresence of that red clay borders on the absurd as it runs from the faucets, drips down the walls, and seeps up from the floorboards.
However, del Toro’s almost confrontational use of it is in perfect synchronicity with the rest of the film. Everything is heightened, the dead are with us, and warnings and signifiers are everywhere.
That goes for the eroticism and violence too, as the traditionally innocent heroine is given a sex drive, and there are some surprisingly brutal gory shocks. As much as Crimson Peak is a Gothic romance rather than a haunted house movie, it is absolutely terrifying when it wants to be, and the spectres are wonderfully designed.
Great actors are needed to make an impact in such an environment, and Crimson Peak has them. The cast clearly enjoys working within the genre types, but each delivers a complex take on those staples.
Wasikowska is on very good form, bringing a welcome backbone and intelligence to Edith, while Hiddleston is seductive and secretive, but adds a warmth and fragility to Thomas that surprises. Chastain, meanwhile, walks away with the film, delivering a wonderful performance that lands just on the right side of ham.
It’s likely that some viewers won’t connect with the rich world that del Toro has conjured, but we fell in love with it almost immediately. Beautiful, scary and a treat for fans of the Gothic genre, Crimson Peak is a stunning achievement.