“Ghosts are real, this much I know,” says Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) as her character stands in the middle of a snow crested landscape with a knife in hand and covered in blood. The voiceover continues and viewers remain unsure of what’s going on or where we are, all the while the music further accentuates the gothic look of the film.
This electric introduction sets the stage for Crimson Peak, an eerily enchanting tale from the infinitely imaginative Guillermo del Toro. Its dark fantasy and gothic romance may not appeal to every audience in an age of superheroes and futuristic sci-fi cinema, but it proved more than enough to delight this viewer.
The story opens with Edith, an American writer and the daughter of a successful entrepreneur, falling for a charismatic Englishman named Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Sharpe arrives in Boston with his sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in an attempt to market a machine he’s invented. Unfortunately for him, Edith’s father (Jim Beaver) not only rejects his pitch but suspects something of him from the beginning, and prefers that his daughter court his physician Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam).
Meanwhile, Edith’s childhood encounters with the ghost of her mother have returned to haunt her, as this spirit warns her one night to “Beware the Crimson Peak.” Upon the sudden murder of her father, she leaves home to be with Sharpe in England. Yet as they wed and move into his elaborate, old-fashioned mansion, a new mystery begins to unravel as a host of spirits haunt this place, lurking within the corners and carrying with them the traumas of these characters’ pasts.
I went into Crimson Peak knowing it would be more dark fantasy than traditional horror. Despite its eery atmosphere and moments of subtle terror, the film is more interested in taking audiences back to an age of gothic romance, in which stories like Dracula and Frankenstein stemmed from, than it is in delivering a genuinely scary experience.
Yet, what makes the film is its impeccably constructed set designs and beautifully crafted costumes. The characters, Victorian setting and story elements exist more as backdrops to the film’s intoxicating visuals. Normally I would be against this, but del Toro pays so much attention to the production value to the point where the house becomes a character in and of itself. It may use storytelling elements which are certainly familiar to this genre, but it does so in a way that coincides with the film’s aesthetic. Look at Pacific Rim, del Toro’s love letter to Japanese anime. Ask yourself if you love that film for its plot or its mesmerizing anime-style action.
On that note, though, Crimson Peak has less in common with del Toro’s Hollywood blockbusters than it does with the filmmaker’s more intimate films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Cronos. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, it features a female protagonist who deals with supernatural forces, gothic themes and a rhythmic yet unsettling score. Scripted by del Toro and Mimic co-writer Matthew Robbins, the story and thematic material reflect everything the director loves, from monsters to adult haunted house stories.
Taking a break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Hiddleston no doubt stands out the most among the cast, brilliantly portraying both the sophistication and complicated aspects of his character. As someone who could be good or evil at any moment, Sharpe is brought to life through Hiddleston’s meticulous physicality and striking screen presence.
Likewise, Chastain carries herself well as his inherently sinister sibling, growing more and more creepy as the film progresses. It’s especially impressive given that I just saw her in The Martian as a heroic and strong-minded leader. And while Wasikowska’s character is reminiscent of hers in Alice in Wonderland, it works as both find themselves tumbling down the rabbit hole.
With its rich visual components, endearing performances and utterly fantastical world-building, Crimson Peak is certainly one of my favorite films of the year and a must see for anyone who loves del Toro’s bizarre storytelling.