I love horror movies, but let’s face it: the vast majority being rolled out these days are shit. Found footage, demonic possession, teen slasher, torture porn, or unnecessary remakes — they all seem to blend into one massive flaming dump after a while.
And so it is refreshing to see Guillermo del Toro go back to his horror roots with Crimson Peak, an old-fashioned gothic fantasy ghost story the likes of which have become virtually extinct. Since it’s Del Toro, it means you’re also guaranteed splendid visuals, beautiful colour palettes and haunting imagery. I even saw it in IMAX for the full immersive experience.
The plot, set in the late 1800s, will feel vaguely familiar: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring young American novelist with a fascination for ghost stories. Her life is changed forever when a dashing young British aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) arrive to seek project funding from Edith’s father (Jim Beaver), a self-made businessman with an observant eye.
It’s one of those films where there are mysteries and secrets to be unravelled, though I was surprised that it did not have any big surprises. The narrative progressed in a familiar direction and things more or less turned out as I expected as Del Toro never really tries to mislead us with red herrings. I believe part of the reason is because Del Toro has insisted that Crimson Peak is not a horror film but a gothic romance, and has accordingly tried to stick to the conventions of the genre.
I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve seen the trailer or the posters you’ll know much of the story revolves around a massive old gothic manor. Once majestic, time, nature and economic hardship have eroded its beauty, leaving behind a dilapidated facade full of unspeakable secrets. It’s a magnificent creation of Del Toro’s imagination, the kind of place where dreams and nightmares are made of. Amazingly, almost of all of it was built from scratch as opposed to relying on digital effects, and you can genuinely sense the superior aesthetics.
So as you may have gathered, Crimson Peak has a distinctly dreamy and fantastical tone driven by location and atmosphere. Everything from the gorgeous imagery to the exquisite costumes and sets contributes to the type of film Del Toro is trying to unleash from his twisted mind. I will admit though, that at times the old-fashioned approach of the film, coupled with the over-the-top melodrama and romance, walks a tightrope between charming and campy. I belong in the former category, for the most part, but I can definitely see some audiences falling in the latter.
What also makes Crimson Peak different to most ghost films these days is that there’s very little build-up to the appearances of the apparitions. Del Toro gets right to it and doesn’t waste time with shadows, fleeting glimpses or sceptical minds doubting our protagonist for three-quarters of the movie. Fans of Del Toro’s previous creature designs in Pans Labyrinth are in for a treat.
Don’t for a second, however, think that Crimson Peak is an “easy” film to watch just because it looks pretty. Del Toro likes to remind his viewers that this is indeed still a horror film with occasional bursts of brutal, visceral violence. It comes swiftly, shockingly, and jolts audiences to the edge of their seats. Frankly, I found these scenes far more terrifying than any of the supernatural stuff.
In terms of performances, the central trio of Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain are all terrific. There is a strange mix of elegance, naivete and strength about Wasikowska that makes her so suitable for such roles, and for me it was great to see Hiddleston channel his charm into a character other than Loki (I had previously only seen him in Marvel movies). The standout, however, is Chastain, who seems to relish the opportunity to play a completely different character to what she’s typically used to. I had just seen her in The Martian the day before and it had no effect on how I perceived her performance in this movie at all.
Crimson Peak may not be one of the scarier horror films I’ve seen (supposedly because it’s not even supposed to be a horror film), but it at least offers a genre experience that is vastly different to what Hollywood has been churning out in recent years. I was delighted by its rich, sprawling visuals, creepy atmosphere, stunning sets and fine cast, and was never bored or frustrated by the story. I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is one of those rare instances where I think these positives, while not making up for a lack of surprises and originality, are enough to make a film worth watching and recommending.
3.75 stars out of 5