Only in a Guillermo del Toro yarn would the setting – a decrepit Victorian estate housing buried, but not forgotten, secrets – literally drip blood. His is the humor of a tongue buried deeply in a cheek, almost to the point of popping through to the other side. It’s not actually blood that is dripping but there’s no mistaking what the globular rouge streaks running down the wallpaper is supposed to resemble. In the world of Crimson Peak, it is but red clay that sullies the interior of the far flung mansion from which the title takes its name. The house is literally sinking in it. As the winter snow decorates the earth around this distinctly haunted house, it grows blood red from the clay beneath. So it’ll likely catch you off guard to hear that for a movie ostensibly soaked in blood, Crimson Peak is actually pretty restrained.
Del Toro has excised elements from his early Spanish-language horror endeavors; the deliberate pacing of The Devil’s Backbone, the fairytale-meets-real-horror elements of Pan’s Labyrinth, the out-of-left-field explosive violence of Cronos. In expanding upon his previous craft, del Toro has simplified and streamlined that which has defined his as a “modern master of horror.” He’s bored the nuance and frights down, filtered out as much baloney as he might be expected to allow himself to and not feathered his feature with jump scares out to the furthest margins. For a movie that boasts ghosts, murderers, romance and bloody houses, Crimson Peak is a concise, simple (but not simple-minded) affair.
It all begins with Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) an aspiring novelist who’s just penned her first book. Edith serves as a stand-in for del Toro’s more feminine side and allows him to play in the sandbox of little girl fantasies. She’s a hard presence in soft skin; a real Bathsheba in frills. Upon presenting her novel to the local publicist, he condemns her sequestering the romantic elements that her ilk (other women) should want to read in favor of a horror subplot involving things going bump in the night. When her father (Jim Beaver) presents her with a resplendent foundation pen as a preemptive congratulations, she requests to employ his typewriter instead. Her loopy handwriting gives her away as a vixen.
From the northern stretches of England, baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives to ensnare potential investors in an investment opportunity. For what, you ask? To harvest the red clay flourishing beneath his European homestead. Or at least that’s his pitch. It isn’t long before Cushing and Sharpe strike up a romance – he appreciates her prose, you see – and she absconds off with him to be married, leaving Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) to question the appeal of this mysterious businessman and his devious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) from across the Atlantic.
Back in the fast-fading manor dutifully nicknamed Crimson Peak, del Toro plays up the spooky elements like he’s playing dolls in his demented man cave. Transparent ghosts rattle and moan, hatchets protruding through their bashed skulls, bones visible beneath their tattered flesh. Phantasms break from the walls and saunter brokenly round the property. Del Toro brilliantly takes the modern phenomenon of loud noises and quick reveals and administers it a royal swirly. The haunt is in the way his specters move, not the mere fact that they’re there. They’re playful and frightful at once. And for all the neon-splashed marketing that’s so far defined Crimson Peak, the film itself is joyfully sparse on spirits and luminescence. In fact, it could have done without ghosts entirely and not been too worse for wear.
The real standout is the scenery as the lavish sets are utterly gushing with character. Del Toro’s Victorian Gothic aesthetic lends Crimson a certain sense of authority and makes his film looks blisteringly good on the big screen. What’s more is that the locales have character. There’s a palpable sense of isolation and chill to Crimson Peak, the manor. The exposure endured from a hole in the ceiling allows the outside elements to spill in, often comically so. Modern horror often forgets the power of setting but del Toro employs his almost perfectly.
Wasikowska handles her role appropriately (though her character is likely the most familiar of the gang) giving Edith a necessary balance of resilience and pliability. The romance that buds between her and Thomas Sharpe is likely the most stupefying element of the film in that it works as well as it does. It is at once unbridled sentimental cheese and the emotional lifeblood of the feature. Tom Hiddleston, the only man who’s made a Marvel villain interesting, is to blame for Thomas Sharpe being such a multi-dimensional, though totally archetypal, antagonist-in-the-making.
Similarly, Jessica Chastain is a joy to watch playing against character. Chastain etched her career on maternal instincts and has played bubbly, assured, decisive, strong roles but has never given such a toothsome, pissy performance. Her every line slips from her tongue like rotten buttermilk; she swoons with all the trustworthiness of Kaa. She’s equally a python, lurking in the grass.
There’s enough mystery and intrigue found in Crimson Peak while it’s in motion to keep you guessing and enticed but once the dust has settled, the grand picture is admittedly not all that unique or unprecedented. What is however is the execution. That del Toro is able to synthesis a modern horror romance from pieces borrowed from posterity is admirable. That’s he able to do so so elegantly and with such visual composure makes it more than admirable. It makes it pretty damn good.
CONCLUSION: ‘Crimson Peak’ is a worthy Gothic yarn from Guillermo del Toro, abundantly rich in dreary atmospherics and made great by its two deliciously playful villains.