Guillermo del Toro set out to create a haunted house drama to rival the very best in the genre – the Exorcists and the Shinings of the world. He succeeds with the haunted house part, but not so much the drama. Part gothic horror story, part ethereal fairytale, Crimson Peak follows Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a bookish young American who aspires to be the next Mary Shelley. “It’s not a ghost story,” she admonishes a publisher. “It’s a story with ghosts in it… The ghosts are a metaphor for the past.” And with this, del Toro sets out his stall; while Crimson Peak is filled with spectres and wraiths, it’s not so much a ghost story as a creepy period romance in the mould of Rebecca.
Edith falls for mysterious nobleman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and agrees to emigrate with him and his clearly deranged sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to his decaying English country pile Allerdale Hall. The move is foreshadowed by ghostly warnings from Edith’s dead mother and the brutal murder of her father, which she ignores. What do ghosts know?
Visual design is always at the forefront of del Toro’s mind, and it’s never less than superb, whether it’s the earthy squalor of Victorian Buffalo, NY, or the crumbling grandeur of Allerdale. Every frame is laden with texture and movement; sickly black butterflies cling to the shadows, dead leaves spiral from a gigantic hole in the roof, slime oozes up through cracks in the ground. The only thing that isn’t rendered in faded hues is the scarlet clay that bubbles up through the ground; if it had a Dulux colour swatch it would be Dario Argento Red.
The narrative feels like an after-thought by comparison. The story is simple and earnest, the reveals so clearly signposted that they can hardly be described as such. The viewer feels omniscient compared to the characters, who are at least half a dozen beats off the pace. What’s left is an over-riding sense of dread: something awful is happening and you’re pretty sure you know what it is, which leaves a long, painful wait for the inevitable.
At least that wait is never dull. Del Toro is a master of changing pace on a dime, often through moments of shocking, unexpected violence. He’s also as keen as ever to show off his monster and the gruesome spirits are brilliantly rendered, all stripped flesh and swirling shadows, even if the frequent use of CGI is a little jarring.
“Beware of Crimson Peak,” is an oft-repeated warning, and if you’re expecting a traditional horror movie, you could take this as a neat meta-reference for the film itself. But if you’re happy to poke around the sumptuous gothic mind of one of the most stylistically exciting directors working in mainstream cinema, then you’ll be right at home in this haunted house.
First published in City A.M.