Early on in Guillermo Del Toro’s lastest Gothic horror, Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing corrects an editor she is desperately trying to impress with her first foray into novel writing, by stating that her novel, “isn’t a ghost story, but merely a story with a ghost.” She then states that, “the ghost is a metaphor for the past.” This is a very knowing wink to the audience, that this isn’t your typical horror out to frighten and scare you, as it has been marketed. Instead del Toro’s latest is more a Gothic romance, owing as much to Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre than it does Hammer Horror, and it’s all the more better for it.
These influences are most apparent during the movie’s opening half, where a young Edith is wooed by the mysterious and enigmatic Thomas Sharpe played with the natural charm of Tom Hiddleston. Edith attends exquisite luncheons and crowded soirées, where in a memorable scene, Thomas invites Edith to dance whilst trying to not extinguish a candle. Then under tragic circumstances, Thomas soon whisks Edith away to his crumbling English estate that he shares with his worryingly creepy sister played with suitable relish by Jessica Chastain. However, after a while Edith sees ghosts stalking the hallways and is reminded of her dead mother’s warning about the dangers of a place called Crimson Peak. Then, when the snowy hills starts to turn red, Edith becomes suitably alarmed.
It’s here the Gothic horror elements of the film and del Toro’s natural visual sensibility come to the fore. The Sharpe estate is built on red clay that oozes through the snowy earth, floorboards and cracks in the wall and the roof has a hole in it so large that snow falls at the bottom of the staircase. However, it’s the ghosts that stalk the hallways that are most alarming the concerned Edith.
All the elements put on the screen are expertly crafted, from the sets, production design, costumes and even the hair and make up. There’s a richness and tactility to everything put on the screen. Even the ghosts are played by regular del Toro collaborator, Doug Jones, who is again suited up in creative prosthetics, all covered with the same red oozing liquid that seeps out of the house. However, upon reaching the conclusion, this red ooze isn’t the only splashing of claret as the film manages to reach a suitably measured yet gory finale.
Yet it’s also how Del Toro plays with horror conventions and gender roles, that gives the film a modern twist despite being set in the 19th Century. Mia Wasikowska’s Edith is no shrinking violet and has a determination to get what she wants. However, it’s Jessica Chastain who is the real stand out, adding icy menace and dangerously fragile to her increasingly impressive repertoire.
Despite the film’s strengths, Crimson Peak doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of del Toro’s previous work, most notably his Spanish language features such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Whilst having more in common with his Spanish language pictures than his Hollywood features, Crimson Peak never quite utilises it’s creepy and intriguing set up. Sometimes the film can lurch close to campiness and some plot developments towards the end of the film are predictable. Overall you can’t help but feel there should be more meat at the heart of the film. Despite this, the film’s conclusion is heartfelt and evokes the romantic sensibilities of a classic doomed love story.
Final Verdict: 7/10
Crimson Peak straddles the line between the art house sensibilities of del Toro’s Spanish language features and the blockbuster bombast of his Hollywood output. It’s his best Hollywood film by far, with great performances, design and mood, but lacks the bite of his best.