Guillermo del Toro is an excellent action filmmaker, but there are other directors making great blockbusters so he’s not that far ahead of the competition when he makes a movie like Pacific Rim. His advantage and his craft become far more pronounced the further he gets from computer generated visual effects. Nobody is better when it comes to practical sets, costumes, and production design, and Crimson Peak is a spectacular showcase for those talents.
So yes, Crimson Peak looks great. It’s a thick oil painting that literally oozes globs of colour (usually red) and the decrepit house has as much personality as any of the characters.
But that’s not what makes it great. Though horror often capitalizes on the fear of the unknown, del Toro understands that those are merely things that we might be afraid of. With Crimson Peak, he chooses to show us things we know we should be afraid of, and that makes them all the more terrifying as he slowly pulls back to reveal the true scope of the nightmare.
Crimson Peak tells the story of Edith Sharpe-nee-Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of an American construction baron. Against her better judgment, she gets swept off her feet by an actual Baronet named Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddelston), a nobleman visiting America to find funding for an invention that will help get his family’s foundering clay business back out of the ground. The two are soon wed, returning with Sharpe’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to the family seat at Crimson Peak, so named for the red clay that stains the ground around it.
Even before they arrive, it’s clear that not everything is as it should be. The house is in ruins, and Thomas is strangely aloof given his newfound marital status. Edith soon starts seeing ghosts and realizes that she is utterly alone, trapped in a potentially abusive relationship with little contact with the outside world.
Fortunately, Edith refuses to play the victim. A perfectly rational protagonist, her approach to her situation feels like it’s been borrowed from a video game. When she encounters a problem, she doesn’t freeze up or wait for someone to come to the rescue. She simply walks about the house looking for the tools she needs to solve it, almost like a Resident Evil heroine collecting strange keys to unlock some sinister mystery (thanks to Dork Shelf EIC Will Perkins for making that connection).
The twists in the tale aren’t all that surprising – and the movie can generally be a bit blunt – but it works because the mystery doesn’t rely on shock or subversion. Like the exquisite decorations, everything is supposed to be on display. The script frequently punctuates is darkest moments with pitch-black levity, providing a delightful self-awareness that adds texture to the sometimes obvious metaphor.
It’s worth noting that Crimson Peak is not a strict horror film, so you’ll probably enjoy it more if you alter those expectations. Though it uses suspenseful elements well (the sound is particularly creepy), it’s more of a Gothic Romance that doesn’t belong to any modern genre, less a ghost story than a story told with ghosts. The distinction is crucial because the mere presence of ghosts has you looking for a supernatural resolution.
However – as with Pan’s Labyrinth – Crimson Peak is more interested in the horrors that humanity is able to perpetrate against itself. Del Toro blurs the line between the human and the supernatural and finds terror in both, and while it’s not as viscerally frightening, the implications are more unsettling.
All of which is to say that while you can enjoy the film at a purely superficial level, there’s plenty of substance beneath the surface should you wish to go digging. Jessica Chastain is terrific in a performance that builds to a chilling monologue about love, while Hiddleston and Wasikowska have remarkable chemistry that helps sell an otherwise preposterous premise. The events of Crimson Peak are high melodrama, but the leads exist entirely within that world and the movie never treats them as cartoons or discredits their desires. You understand why Edith would fall for Thomas and her decision does not in any way seem foolish at the outset.
Unlike many horror-adjacent films, Crimson Peak does not require Edith to be innocent or naïve. She uses her intelligence to drive the plot forward, leading to a climactic line rightly destined to be a fixture of fan art for many years to come.
Crimson Peak is not the year’s best movie, but it is one of the most imaginative, and it speaks to the fact that sometimes there is nothing scarier than humanity. The result is a haunting-yet-beautiful diorama that no other director would even try to put together, and that’s why Guillermo del Toro remains one of the most exciting filmmakers in the business.