Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Think you know what to expect from veteran horror and genre director Guillermo del Toro? Gangly, pallid, slimy creatures such as we saw in Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, right? Cryptic underworlds, bewildering dreamscapes, and collossal, ocean-stomping robot avatars?!
Think again! In his latest effort to scare and transport his audiences, Crimson Peak, del Toro has conjured up a true Gothic world of Victorian elegance, tender romance, and Sherlockian sleuthing… With some slimy creatures. Which are also, strange as it may sound, beautifully executed.
No doubt about it, del Toro is a visionary. Despite some clear aesthetic leanings, his film repertoire is surprisingly diverse, from 1997’s Mimic to 2013’s Pacific Rim. His films are always rich in detail and visually stunning. And this time he just happened to hit all the right notes for this particular viewer.
Crimson Peak is the tale of young American heiress and authoress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland), deeply skeptical of the British aristocracy… until she’s won over by the ambitious, earnest baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, Avengers, The Hollow Crown), who is trying to secure financing for a risky mining venture to extract red clay from beneath his crumbling family mansion. Though Edith’s father nurses doubts about the man and his motives, his own untimely death frees up both the young woman—and her fortune. Swept off her feet, she is whisked off to Cumberland, England and the less-than-enchanting family home, the gorgeously decrepit Allerdale Hall.
She must share her new life with her sister-in-law Lucille (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty), in the archetypal role of unwelcoming Gothic housekeeper. She knows all the family secrets, and keeps them from her young, impressionable sister-in-law. It’s a powerhouse performance, captivating and creepy, and Chastain inhabits the role perfectly.
All of the performances are stellar. Wasikowska is swiftly becoming one of the most interesting actors of her generation, winning us over in leading roles from Alice in Wonderland to Jane Eyre. And, indeed, she seems practically purpose-built for the role of Victorian heroine… in precisely the same way Hiddleston is ideally cast as the tortured Gothic hero. It was nice to see Hiddleston shed that helmet (and, um, other things) so we could focus on his nuanced performance (and, um, other things). Hey, I did mention the tender romance!
But let’s be honest here. The movie is called Crimson Peak, it’s Gothic horror, and it’s a del Toro film. You’ve gotta be prepared for quite a bit of… red. And its use here is not subtle. But that’s OK—because the rest of the Gothic elements are so fabulously, gloriously done. The creepy house, the overwrought clothes (those SLEEVES!), the snow, the music, the lighting… everything is just right, down to little details we haven’t seen before (wax phonograph cylinders). And the ghosts are… really, I just can’t think of another word but gorgeous. Gory, sometimes, yes, but also so marvelously ghostly. I was actually laughing with delight whenever one appeared on screen, in all its wispy glory.
If there are any missteps, they come at the end. With a setup, story, performances, and setting so strong, it’s fair to expect a more interesting and ambitious resolution. But the mysteries, when finally revealed, turn out to be fairly pedestrian and disappointing—typical slasher-flick stuff. But, again, those are mild disappointments amid an otherwise satisfying spectacle. The film as a whole is exactly what you want from a Gothic ghost story, and del Toro can add another masterwork to his catalogue. Go see it. Crimson Peak is in theaters everywhere right now.