In the middle of the night, a virginal young bride wanders the hallways of a sprawling mansion in the English countryside, clutching a candelabra and calling out her husband’s name as she tries to locate the source of the creaks, groans and whispers that have stirred her from sleep. Behind her an apparition materializes, a skeleton seemingly made of black smoke and clad in a wedding gown, stalking ever closer to the unsuspecting maiden, reaching out to grasp at her shoulder…
If this is the kind of scene that sends chills up your spine, then Guillermo del Toro’s haunting Gothic romance Crimson Peak will have plenty to offer. Regrettably, the film isn’t nearly as terrifying as the marketing would have you believe – after all, the director himself insists that it’s not a horror movie – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing here to be afraid of. It just means that audiences who have grown accustomed to the cheaper sort of scares littered throughout more mainstream fare might be left feeling a bit cheated.
For the rest of us, however, Crimson Peak is a wonderfully creepy homage to a genre popularized by such literary works as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – the latter of which was turned into an excellent adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock – as well as the Hammer horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. All of the elements of classic Gothic tales are on display here, including the innocent young bride, the mysterious and brooding gentleman, and of course, the creepy old house where strange things keep happening.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer, living with her widowed father Carter (Jim Beaver) in turn-of-the-century Buffalo, New York. Handsome and charming baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) has come to America with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) hoping to secure funding for a new invention, a harvesting machine that will revolutionize the clay mining process. But while Edith is immediately taken with the English stranger – much to the chagrin of her childhood friend turned handsome doctor, Michael (Charlie Hunnam) – Carter knows something is amiss with the Sharpe siblings, and a confrontation at a dinner party ultimately leads to tragic consequences for the Cushing family.
Time passes, and a newly wedded Edith and Thomas return to the Sharpe family home, an imposing structure built above a mine whose sole product is a clay so red and soft that it oozes up through the floorboards, earning the house the nickname “Crimson Peak.” Nearly as soon as they arrive, Edith begins to encounter strange sounds and ghostly images whenever she’s alone, but as she begins to uncover the truth about Thomas and Lucille, she realizes that the spirits haunting her new home might be the least dangerous creatures beneath its roof.
Crimson Peak doesn’t offer a wildly new take on the traditional Gothic romance, but instead embraces the formula and embellishes it. The characters are little more than archetypes, but the cast rises to the occasion, with Chastain delivering a particularly brilliant performance, consumed by jealousy and rage as she finds herself to no longer be the most important person in her brother’s life. Hiddleston is equally great, caught between genuine affection for his new bride and a sense of duty and loyalty to Lucille.
Wasikowska, on the other hand, is the film’s weakest link. She’s a talented and competent actress, but we’re never quite sold on her infatuation with Thomas, nor do we believe that any true passion exists between them. There’s just something missing from Wasikowska’s performance, as though she never quite felt comfortable in the role, but these shortcomings are more than balanced out by the work of Hiddleston and Chastain.
It also bears mentioning just how unbelievably gorgeous Crimson Peak is. There’s hardly a single frame of footage that isn’t awash with lavish costumes and elaborate production design, all of it draped in vivid colors and spooky shadows thanks to cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Silent Hill), turning in the best work of his career. The visuals alone are more than worth the price of admission, and you likely won’t see a better-looking film this year.
Crimson Peak isn’t likely to have audiences screaming and shrieking, but its tenacious commitment to atmosphere and tone will surely get under the skin of viewers looking for something with a little more to offer than a few jump scares. It doesn’t reinvent the genre by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it want to – the film and its director seem perfectly content to have delivered a suitably creepy and undeniably beautiful entry into the category.