The first thing you should know about Crimson Peak, the ninth feature film directed by Guillermo del Toro, is that it is not a horror movie – not exactly, anyway. There are ghosts in the film, a number of them in fact, but they are kindred spirits (no pun intended) with the entities glimpsed in some of del Toro’s earlier films like The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth: they are there to serve as a warning or even a sort of Greek chorus. The real monsters in Crimson Peak, which the director himself describes as a Gothic romance, are all too human, an aspect they too share with the characters created in so much of his earlier work.
It’s been said that Crimson Peak is a return to the style, atmosphere and thematic concerns of the movies mentioned above, and that’s partially correct. The main differences are that those films were all in Spanish (along with his debut, Cronos) and that the central characters were all children. Crimson Peak is an English- anguage film, and while we briefly meet the main character, Edith Cushing, in childhood (where she has her first encounter with a ghost), this movie focuses squarely on the adults – although this being a Gothic tale, the past weighs heavily on them all.
The grown-up version of Edith is played by Mia Wasikowska, and when we are introduced to her, she’s living in Buffalo, New York in 1901 and is interested not in finding a husband like so many young women at that time but in getting her first novel published. One publisher rejects it (because it needs a love story, he tells her), yet Edith soldiers on with the support of her loving and upstanding father, Carter (Jim Beaver), and her determined suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). But Edith’s ambitions are suddenly swept aside when she meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a British land owner and inventor whose enigmatic yet kindly nature stirs her soul.
Sharpe is in America to seek financing for a mining machine he has been working to perfect, accompanied by his serpentine, sinister sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Carter, not impressed, is also quite worried about the effect Sharpe is having on his daughter. But when tragedy strikes, a devastated Edith finds solace in Sharpe’s arms and almost before she knows it, she becomes his bride and is whisked away to a remote region of northern England, where Sharpe and Lucille reside at their ancestral home, Allerdale Hall. Allerdale’s crumbling, shadow-encrusted corridors are where the already sensitive Edith is once again confronted by spirits and begins to learn about the history of the Sharpes and the secrets they keep.
We’ll leave it there as far as the rest of the plot goes, but Crimson Peak is not a tale that is based on a whole lot of shocking reveals or unexpected twists (there is one that you can probably see coming). No, this is essentially a love story, although the love on hand is quite corrosive and destructive. It’s also based on lies and manipulation, especially on the part of Thomas Sharpe, although Hiddleston is so skillful at conveying the character’s conflicting emotions that his romance with Wasikowska’s Edith eventually takes on a tragic air. As we said earlier, this is also not a horror movie, so there’s very little here that will actually scare you, although you will be held in suspense if you find the machinations of the characters compelling enough.
If you’re not let down by the lack of real horror (and I admit I was for a few minutes), there is a lot on offer here. For one thing, this is clearly the most beautiful movie del Toro has ever made; he and cinematographer Dan Laustsen fill the screen with gorgeous compositions that positively drip with glowing colors in the style of the late, great Mario Bava and other practitioners of Gothic cinema. Meanwhile, production designer Tom Sanders and costume designer Kate Hawley also outdo themselves: Allerdale Hall is a stunning creation, a full-sized house built on a soundstage and sculpted with hundreds if not thousands of unique details, from the subtle carvings in the walls to the hole in the ceiling that continually lets in a soft flutter of leaves and snow. Hawley’s wardrobes are also exquisite, from the softly shining angelic white dresses worn by Wasikowska to the sumptuous, juicy blue and black silks and velvets in which Jessica Chastain is wrapped like a lovely but poisoned fruit.
Which brings us to the cast. For my money, Chastain walks the line successfully between over-the-top villainy and almost pitiable malevolence, adding a sly erotic undercurrent that somehow manifests itself through her restrictive but eye-grabbing outer garments. She’s never quite played a role like this before and inhabits it completely, making Lucille terrifically malevolent even as you can’t tear your eyes away. Hiddleston is also quite strong, with his Tom Sharpe a much more complicated figure that one would expect, capable of hidden compassion and doubt.
Wasikowska is solid and confident as a woman refreshingly in charge of her own life in the movie’s first act, but she becomes a little more problematic as the movie goes on and we, the audience, get ahead of her in knowing what’s probably coming. Still, the only one of the four leads I found actively unengaging is Hunnam, less wooden than he was in del Toro’s Pacific Rim but still too stiff to be believable as a doctor and intellect living at the turn of the century. Wasikowska and Hiddleston generate some real sparks in their sex scene (only the second that del Toro has ever shot) and it’s easy to see why she would ditch the faithful but bland Hunnam.
The ghosts, using actors filmed on the set yet greatly enhanced in post-production, drift too far into the realm of CG to work effectively as part of the environment, but their function in the film seems somewhat minimal overall. One of Crimson Peak’s problems – and there are some — is that the game is laid out not very far into the movie and never veers sharply into any other territory or unseen development. The greatest amount of suspense and drama is generated during the first section, as Edith is manipulated into her relationship with Tom; the film’s second half unspools pretty much as would expect as the relationship between Edith, Tom and Lucille plays out, with the supernatural elements receding largely into the woodwork.
Nevertheless, despite some vague disappointment in the screenplay’s lack of surprises, I couldn’t help but like Crimson Peak a lot. Its cast is far more engaging, charismatic and likable than that of del Toro’s last movie, 2013’s plodding Pacific Rim, and the movie can easily be enjoyed as a grand buffet – an orgy, really – of rich sensory delights, from the sets to those bursts of congealed color to the lavish costumes and staging. It’s a throwback to a certain kind of Gothic film that we just don’t see anymore, livened up by an incredible visual style, updated attitudes on sex and brief but jarringly bloody violence. No, it’s not horror, and it may not end up being a truly great movie either. But it’s indisputably and unashamedly a Guillermo del Toro film, and his clear passion for it is itself romantic enough to suck you in.
Crimson Peak is out in theaters Friday (Oct. 16).