Guillermo del Toro’s latest, Crimson Peak, puts the director back at the adult table for the first time since 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth and reminds us that he still has a keen eye for sumptuous gothic gore and breathtakingly beautiful violence. Visually, Crimson Peak is one of the most impressive films of the year — you never know if you should be terrified of the ghosts or if you should matte them and hang them on your wall — and it also boasts a mostly terrific cast in Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska and Charle Hunnam (who is responsible for the “mostly”). The visuals and the performances are strong enough, in fact, to overlook an otherwise predictable screenplay. You may have seen a version of this story before, but you’ve never seen it look this gorgeous.
Wasikowska plays Edith, an aspiring American writer of gothic horror around the turn of the 20th century. A local physician with his own interest in ghosts, Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) is smitten with Edith. However, she’s more interested in a mysterious out-of-towner, Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), and his creepy sister, Lucille (Chastain), who swoop in to try and woo Edith’s wealthy father, Carter (the always terrific Jim Beaver), into investing in Thomas’ clay-extraction contraption.
After Thomas glides Edith off her feet (here, literally, while doing the waltz), Edith’s father discovers that Thomas has a dark past. Before he can relay that information to Edith, however, his cranium meets a porcelain sink several. brutal. times. and before we know it, he’s pushing up daisies out behind the house and Edith is marrying Thomas and relocating to an estate on the English countryside sinking in red clay.
The house in which most of Crimson Peak takes place is breathtaking. There’s a giant hole in the ceiling for leaves or snow to drift down, hidden rooms, creepy basements, and long hallways perfect for demon apparitions to hover. I didn’t mention it before, but oh yeah! Edith can also see ghosts, of which she sees plenty when she arrives in her new home. The blood-or-cholera soaked ghosts all seem to be the victims of horrible violence, and it’s hard to say whether they’re trying to scare Edith or warn her away (or maybe a bit of both).
Where the story arrives ultimately is of little surprise and even less of consequence. Crimson Peak is a conventional gothic fairy tale that is ferried along by shuddersome visuals and delightful performances that manage to straddle the line between understated and completely over the top. The movie hinges upon the performance of Chastain, who we know is up to no good. However, she manages to be both sinister and just campy enough that Peak doesn’t crumble under the weight of all the gloom. Hiddleston — who replaced Benedict Cumberbatch at the last minute — is also good, though not as naturally creepy as Cumberbatch, while Wasikowska is perfect. She, of course, was bred in a petri dish labeled, “Actress — Period Dramas.”
Crimson Peak is longer than it needs to be — it gets bogged down in the setup — and del Toro’s dialogue work still has the cumbersome feel of lines written by someone who speaks English as a second language. However, there’s a real tragic love story here. It’s a horror movie with a heart that is beating and throbbing and pumping out beautiful, crimson blood that drips and spurts and flows until the film’s weaknesses are drowned in beautiful puddles of gore.