Movie Review: “Crimson Peak”

Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam
Guillermo del Toro

It’s no secret that Guillermo del Toro has a slightly deranged imagination, as witnessed by the twisted fantasy worlds and creatures from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the “Hellboy” films, but there’s a beauty to his madness that flows through all of the director’s movies, perhaps none more so than his latest project. A gothic romance that’s equal parts Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Brontë, “Crimson Peak” feels like a nostalgic throwback to the kind of films that Hammer made in its prime. Though the movie’s supernatural elements aren’t as prominent as the marketing campaign would lead you to believe, “Crimson Peak” is a sumptuously designed genre flick that delivers a different kind of horror from the typical ghosts-and-ghouls haunted house story.

Set during the turn of the 20th century, the film stars Mia Wasikowska as young American heiress Edith Cushing, an aspiring author who has no interest in romance, whether in real life or her stories, despite the fact that childhood friend-turned-physician Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) clearly fancies her. When English baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in town seeking financing for a clay-mining machine that will help return his family’s business to its former glory, he’s turned away by Edith’s father (Jim Beaver), a self-made industrialist who sees right through Thomas’ façade. That doesn’t stop Edith from falling in love with the penniless aristocrat, however, and after her father is tragically murdered (although it’s covered up to look like an accident), Thomas whisks her away to England to live with him and his ice-cold sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), in their ancestral home of Allerdale Hall, a crumbling mansion that’s literally sinking into the ground due to the red clay mines below it. But when Edith begins to encounter tortured apparitions that haunt her new home, she uncovers terrible secrets about the Sharpe family history that threaten Thomas and Lucille’s ulterior motives.

“Crimson Peak” isn’t a very scary movie, but it’s not supposed to be, at least not in the traditional sense. While the blood-soaked ghosts (a gruesome blend of practical and CG effects) are visually frightening, they serve a different purpose to the story beyond sheer terror – namely, as a warning to Edith of the real horrors that exist within the walls of Allerdale Hall, which is nicknamed Crimson Peak because of the way the clay beneath the ground turns the snow red during the wintertime. It makes for some fantastic imagery that del Toro utilizes to full effect in the film’s big finale, but it’s also a metaphor for the literal blood that’s been spilled throughout the years, not to mention a cheeky reference to Edith’s recently lost virginity.

Though the movie drags a bit in the first act during Thomas’ courtship of Edith, once they arrive in England, it picks up considerably thanks to the chemistry between the three leads. Wasikowska is well cast as the innocent heroine with the ability to see ghosts, and Hiddleston brings an old-fashioned charm to the morally conflicted baronet, but Chastain is the real standout. The actress digs into her juicy role with a quiet intensity, delivering a masterfully restrained performance that could have easily devolved into camp. Instead, Chastain takes the less obvious route, and it’s bone-chillingly effective, like in a scene where she scrapes a spoon across a bowl of porridge while detailing her father’s abusive tendencies that’s more disturbing than any other moment in the film.

The only thing capable of upstaging Chastain is the mansion itself, the centerpiece of the movie’s exquisite production design that functions as another character. Allerdale Hall feels like a living, breathing thing – so much so that red clay courses through the building like blood through veins, constantly gushing from holes in the walls and cracks in the floor. It’s an amazing piece of craftsmanship that highlights del Toro’s visually distinct style, although sadly, the story lacks the substance to match it. The film could have been even better if del Toro paid as much attention to the story as he did on the lavish sets and costumes, but “Crimson Peak” plays to his strengths as a director to create an enjoyable piece of gothic horror that adds a dash of prestige and sophistication to a genre not usually known for those qualities.