Don’t buy a ticket to Crimson Peak expecting a horror movie. Buy a ticket expecting a Guillermo del Toro movie. Your mileage with the film will improve exponentially, sort of like if you traded in your Bentley for a Tesla. With del Toro, “horror” is a misleading label applied mostly by critics and film geeks. Yes, he makes horror movies, but in each of those movies, save for the entomophobic nightmare Mimic, horror exists at the fringes of fairy tales, folklore and fantasy. For del Toro, dread and awe are two sides of the same coin, where the alloys of the obverse and reverse faces have bled into one another. That’s the very marrow of Crimson Peak: It’s a film that’s all about the wonder and joy of being afraid.
It’s also a deeply human picture where the ghouls shuffling in the back of del Toro’s mind happily serve as window dressing instead of as antagonists. People, not monsters, have always been del Toro’s central fascination. He just happens to have a pronounced fetish for all things ectoplasmic and phantasmagoric, though his supernatural tastes match his preference in thespians. Here, he has assembled the comely trio of Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain to play out his film’s mortal conflicts, which makes good sense: In del Toro’s world, the dead necessarily look just as stunning as the living. Sue the man for placing high aesthetic value on the visual scheme of the fiends haunting his pictures. Like The Devil’s Backbone, used here as del Toro’s self-reference point, Crimson Peak takes the “haunting” part to heart, with a ghost yarn wrapped up in Victorian-era romance that’d make du Maurier, Brontë, Bava, and Perrault beam with pride from beyond the grave.
If you needed del Toro to return to his Pan’s Labyrinth form after indulging himself by gleefully smashing stuff in 2013’s Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak is the gory, kinky tonic to slake your thirst. The film opens in Buffalo, New York, shortly before the turn of the 19th century, where young Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) lives with her father (the great Jim Beaver) and works on her first novel while defending her use of genre to bores, boors and blowhards. We like her right away: She’s quick, she’s sharp, and she would rather emulate Mary Shelley than Jane Austen. (In other words, she’s del Toro’s screen surrogate. It’s no accident that Edith likes the same things del Toro likes, or that she’s a creative type, or that she uses ghosts as metaphors and not as excuses for crappy jump scares. Del Toro and Edith don’t tell ghost stories. They tell stories that have ghosts in them.)
She’s soon swept off her feet by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a baronet who happens into town looking for financial backing on a mining project he hopes will save his family name from fading into memory. He’s dashing and handsome, he can dance a perfect waltz, and he’s politely mysterious, which ups his inherent sexy charm. (He’s clearly up to no good, but try telling that to the smitten Edith.) When her dad suddenly passes away under murky circumstances, Thomas asks her hand in marriage, and they move on from America to Northern England, where they take up residence in Allerdale Hall, Sharpe’s ancestral estate. It’s a gorgeous dump with a crumbling roof, terrible heating, walls carpeted by black moths, and grounds that run red from the sanguine clay beneath its surface. Worse still, it’s teeming with phantoms.
So Edith sets about solving the riddle of Allerdale Hall, of Thomas, and of his sister, Lucille (Chastain). Like many recent horror movies, from Goodnight Mommy to The Babadook, Crimson Peak looks inward at home and family as a source of terror, and thus relies as much on performance as on special effects to generate fright. Wasikowska’s bright core lends Edith a brave curiosity, while Hiddleston continues to refine his craft as the king of all heartbroken heavies. Meanwhile, Chastain cuts an ashen figure of lunatic resolve in her every scene. (She makes “batshit crazy” irresistible.) They’re the only characters who matter, even as Charlie Hunnam’s prototypical straight-arrow good guy determines to rescue Edith from the Sharpe’s clutches. Truthfully, he’s only there to undercut the presumptuously masculine trope he’s meant to portray. Edith isn’t a damsel, even if she is in distress.
As she stands between Thomas and Lucille, she endures alarming run-ins with variously deformed ghosts throughout the house. They would be terrifying if del Toro wasn’t at the helm, but he doesn’t want us to cover our eyes, hide under our chairs, or loose our bladders. He wants us to look on in amazed petrification. In a vacuum, the wraiths that Edith encounters are freaky as hell. Their faces contort and twist in ways that faces absolutely should not, and they often come adorned with fashionable accoutrements like cleavers embedded in their noggins. But are they out to get Edith, or out to warn her? The answer is easy enough to ascertain, which critics have been disappointingly quick to hold against the film in early reviews.
They’re missing the point. Crimson Peak is about experiential build-up more than it is about taking us offguard. We are not being Shyamalan’d. We are being del Toro’d. Sensation is essential to his aesthetic, and Crimson Peak is a film that’s all about engaging the senses: His reliably phenomenal production design sucks us into its locations, particularly Allerdale Hall, one of the greatest sets of del Toro’s career, a monument of decayed beauty where even the fine details have fine details of their very own. Here, style becomes substance. We’re so easily transported into Crimson Peak’s world that we feel rapture where we might otherwise feel panic. Del Toro responds to fear by staring it in the face, and in Crimson Peak, he encourages us to do the same.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Doug Jones
Release Date: October 19, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft brews.