Guillermo del Toro crafts another filmic feast in Crimson Peak, a Gothic horror mood piece that, while not as substantial or a surprising as one might hope, still delivers his trademark breathtaking visuals to stunning effect.
The film opens in Buffalo, New York, 1887. A young Edith Cushing (Sofia Wells), accompanied by her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), attends the funeral for her mother, struck down by cholera. Later that night, we learn that Edith possesses the power to see the spirits of the departed, as her mother’s terrifying ghost (portrayed by del Toro regular, Doug Jones) visits Edith, only to portentously warn her, “Beware of Crimson Peak.”
Fourteen years later, the adult Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a strong-willed Victorian-era spitfire (a character hewing narrowly to the educated and ambiguously liberated “woman ahead of her time” trope) and an aspiring writer, now works at her father’s brick and masonry company. A suitor, Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), visiting America with his cold, standoffish sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), courts Edith while simultaneously courting her father’s vast wealth, wealth to which Thomas desperately needs access in order to complete his work on a revolutionary ore extraction machine. The Sharpes, you see, own ancestral lands rich in clay and minerals, perfect for the manufacture of top quality building materials, but they are also flat broke.
After rebuffing both of Thomas’s overtures, and then bribing the Sharpes to leave America –an action based partly on his own gut feelings, but based primarily on an unsavory report he commissioned from private investigator, Holly (Burn Gorman) — Carter is brutally murdered. Edith, in shock, and somewhat overwhelmed by Thomas’s relentless advances, marries the Baronet, and returns with him and Lucille to the enormous Sharpe family estate in England, Allerdale Hall, as her family’s lawyer prepares to sell off her father’s assets and forward to Edith the proceeds.
Once at the remote and dilapidated Hall, Edith’s life takes a dramatic downturn as Thomas becomes immediately distant and aloof, the still cold and disagreeable Lucille takes an overly-concerned interest in what Edith eats and drinks, and several horrifying, blood-red ghosts begin to manifest regularly to Edith, with dire messages for her from beyond the grave. Thomas surprises Edith by casually informing her that his home is known locally, and colloquially as “Crimson Peak,” for the manner in which the red clay stains the winter snow. Frightened, and suddenly now coughing up blood, our resolute and intrepid heroine begins to investigate what will turn out to be the hideous and malignant mystery of the monstrous Sharpes and their ancestral home, with devastating results.
As this is a Guillermo del Toro film, the production design is sumptuous and exquisite to an extreme. A del Toro production not only sets the bar higher for other films of its genre, it obliterates the bar and flings aside the chunks. Crimson Peak is no exception. There is no detail too small, no aspect too trivial to not receive the full “del Toro treatment”; spectacular colors pop with vibrant energy, magnificent and soaring architecture awes, lavish costumes amaze and delight with their opulent complexity. The cinematography alone is a colorful, extravagant exhibition in the impeccable use of lighting, immaculate framing, and near faultless motion picture semiotics.
Likewise, this mournful film is rich in visual metaphor. Upon their arrival at Allerdale Hall, Thomas demonstrates for Edith the scope of the mansion’s decay…, he steps on a section of the main floor, which depresses all too easily, causing red clay slurry to ooze upwards into the Hall; the notion that the mansion is metaphorically bleeding should be lost on no one. Crimson Peak is filled to overflowing with those types of visual omens, auguries, and signs…, from the blindingly white snow falling through the massive hole in the Hall’s roof, to the red clay sludge that permeates and saturates every aspect of Allerdale Hall, to the blood-red snow surrounding the mansion, gifting the Sharpe’s home with its moniker of “Crimson Peak.” And then there are those objects in the underground room…
The direction and the acting are both equally excellent; del Toro orchestrates the proceedings with the sure hand of a master craftsman immersed in the pursuit he loves best, while Wasikowska, Hiddleston, and Chastain all inhabit fully their roles. Chastain and Wasikowska, in particular, impress in their roles and as the respective embodiments of dark and light, the Yin and Yang of Allerdale Hall (in the sense that seemingly opposite, or contrary forces may be interconnected, or interdependent) and, similarly, as the dual influences on Thomas and his choices. del Toro demonstrates an awareness of, if not service to the fans of his films in the casting of Pacific Rim thesps Gorman as the sharp-witted investigator, and Charlie Hunnam as Edith’s devoted, but ill-fated admirer, Dr. Alan McMichael.
The screenplay has issues that, fortunately, do not devastate the film, nor lessen its impact, but they are conspicuous enough that the viewer may experience some level of discontent. The story’s primary problem is that of a regrettable banality…, there are no surprises, here. One need not steep themselves in either the lore or the clichés of Gothic horror to predict exactly where del Toro and Robbins are going to take their elegiac storyline. What you expect to have happen will happen as you expect. What you expect to be the big reveal is the big reveal you expect. Nevertheless, the scripts shortcomings, potentially bothersome though they may be, take nothing away from the splendid visual experience the film provides.
BOTTOM LINE: See this film on video…, free if you can, but pay if needs be. Crimson Peak is very safe DVD or Blu-ray “must-buy” for Gothic horror enthusiasts and, while the film falls just short of purchase-worthy for those who don’t consider themselves genre aficionados, it is well worth “the price of admission” on VOD.