Crimson Peak (****)
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam and Jim Beaver
A move away from the popcorn smasher hijinks of Pacific Rim or the comic book antics of the Hellboy series, Guillermo Del Toro’s latest outing feels more akin to the likes of his early Spanish language films such as The Devil’s Backbone and Chronos. An archaic plot at heart, it’s Del Toro’s horror geekery that sets Crimson Peak apart from most gothic features, making for a visually enriched, highly detailed thriller that is arguably the director’s best since Pan’s Labyrinth.
As the daughter of wealthy American industrialist, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is fascinated with the paranormal. Convinced she has received visits from the ghost of her deceased mother, she’s inspired to write a piece of gothic fiction, despite sneers from her socialite peers who compare her to the spinster Jane Austen. She revels in her ambition however, considering herself as more of a Mary Shelley-type, who in fact died a widow. The name checks aren’t coincidental, giving Crimson Peak it’s foundations as both a romantic fairy tale and a gothic nightmare.
Somewhat naive in the lessons of love, Edith succumbs to the charms of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddlestone), a silky English aristocrat who has come to America, along with his calculating sister (Jessica Chastain), in search of investment for his failing mining operation, located in the hauntingly misty and frost-bitten Cumberland countryside.
Despite warnings from her father (Jim Beaver) and her unrequited suitor (Charlie Hunnam), she is soon whisked away from her vibrant, prosperous homestead of upstate New York to Allerdale Hall, the crumbling ruins of English gentry granted the nickname Crimson Peak, due to the fact that it is quite literally sinking into pits of red clay bubbling in the depths of the forbidden floors below.
The house is unmistakably the centrepiece of Del Toro’s vision. Riddled with fluttering moths, paintings that watch your every moment, and red clay churning out of every orifice, this is a place that feels just as alive as those who reside in it. The howling winds that swirl around the desolate landscape give the house a dying breath, with every groan and croak announcing another fatal blow to turn-of-the-century English aristocracy. Crafted with meticulous detail, the barbed decor and shadow crevices make for a setting that’s an absolute joy to explore. Locked doors and an elevator with a mind of it’s own only heighten our desire to delve deeper into the horrors that lie within.
As Edith’s visions grow more intense, the apparitions themselves are a ghastly nightmare to behold. Even in their translucency and obvious CG touch-ups, the ghosts that appear before her have a physicality to them that earn them their rightful place in Del Toro’s growing museum of morbid monstrosities. A stalwart of Del Toro pictures, Doug Jones and his imposing skeletal frame return to bring these ghouls to life, rising up from a concoction of blood, clay and shadow in a manner reminiscent to that of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, complete with chattering teeth and throaty whispering moans.
But this is less of a “ghost story” and rather “a story with ghosts in it” and in the face of some grizzly viewing, the film stays true to its melodrama roots. Much of the real horror within Crimson Peak comes from the human characters themselves. Hiddlestone and Chastain devious performances provide the most unsettling shocks, amidst the bloody carnage and red-splattered mayhem. Elements of body horror arouse the biggest gasps from the audience while the psychosexual relationship between the conniving siblings and Edith is perhaps the most rotten, bitter feature lurking within the disintegrating walls of Allerdale Hall.
From the atmospheric tone to the precise costume design, the majority of nods go to Shelley, Austin, Poe, and whole host of other romantic and gothic literary visionists. However, it’s unmistakingly Del Toro’s macabre perfectionism that makes this turn-of-the-century romp strangely compelling but completely chilling, even going so far as to demand a repeat viewing if we’re to fully unlock the many secrets that lie within the walls of the dread Crimson Peak.