If you were going to hand anyone the opportunity to bring a gothic horror romance to the screen, there really is no better director than Guillermo del Toro. Throughout his fascinating career, he's proven himself as one of the most distinct and imaginative cinematic visionaries working today, with an aesthetic both gritty and textured, and romantic and stylised. His previous films, whether they be arthouse masterpieces like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006) or full-blown blockbusters like ‘Hellboy’ (2004), have always skirted on the edge of the classical horror genre. Now, with ‘Crimson Peak’, he not only fully embraces its style and substance, he totally revels in it.
Set in the late 19th century, the film follows aspiring young writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) who finds herself caught up in the affections of the charming and strangely sad Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a young British aristocrat trying to preserve his family estate and business mining the red clay on his family estate. After an horrific family tragedy, Edith marries Thomas and moves with him to the estate in England, a crumbling old mansion he shares with his cold and distant sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Within hours of entering the house, Edith begins to see and hear strange and terrifying things, and slowly begins to unravel a violent history for the estate, colloquially known as Crimson Peak.
Del Toro has insisted that, rather than a horror film, ‘Crimson Peak’ is more of a gothic romance, and the original story he has crafted with co-writer Matthew Robbins certainly sits within that framework. Pulling inspiration from gothic greats like Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Henry James and Shirley Jackson, ‘Crimson Peak’ is a sumptuous, atmospheric and ridiculously operatic tale, a tapestry of intrigue and horrors set in a world of rapturous design. Rather than avoiding the clichés of its genre, the screenplay revels in them, giving them a pop and freshness so long needed. Del Toro isn’t afraid to embrace the melodrama, whether that be in the narrative (familiar yet genuinely engaging and very twisted), his inspired and imaginative direction, or the overwhelmingly detailed world he’s crafted for these fascinating characters to wander through. As with his other films, the design is to die for, the detail in the sets and costumes played to delicious excess. The centrepiece of the film - the house itself - is a gloriously illogical creation, a living and breathing organism that’s as active in the narrative as the human beings inhabiting it. It’s an extraordinary stage on which to perform this thrilling melodrama, and del Toro never misses an opportunity to show it off or use to to his advantage.
Even while playing with familiar tropes, the film offers genuine twists and turns, bolstered by a small but carefully crafted collection of characters and flashes of genuine horror. ‘Crimson Peak’ might not be as obnoxiously scary as most studio horror films, but each bump and jump is executed with great care in order to maximise the effect. This isn't a film that will have you jumping out of your seat, but one that will have you slowly shrinking under it. The horror is also in service of the story rather than the other way round, giving it a texture much closer to the classics of the genre. Del Toro is far more interested in crafting a world and an engaging narrative, and it’s out of these that he’s offered some genuinely chilling set-pieces. There are moments the film falls into outright silliness, especially in its final act, but at no point does that work against it. When a film is as operatic and ridiculous as ‘Crimson Peak’, the silliness only adds to the wonder and entertainment of it.
The cast are also absolutely pitch perfect. Tom Hiddleston is tremendous as Thomas, the character allowing him to utilise both his beautiful charm and gentleness and the anarchy bubbling under the surface. Charlie Hunnam also seems far more at ease here in the melodramatic style as Edith’s childhood friend Dr Alan McMichael than he has in many a film, and Jim Beaver is a surprising find as Edith’s father Carter. However, ‘Crimson Peak’ well and truly belongs to its female leads. Mia Wasikowska is dynamite as Edith, refusing to be the gentle damsel-in-distress and instead becoming a heroine of genuine action and determination. The film rests on her shoulders, and she carries it without breaking a sweat. Jessica Chastain though knocks it out of the ballpark as Lucille, an enormous performance akin to a size of a Bette Davis or a Vivian Leigh. She’s chewing on every piece of scenery she can find with a performance that swings from deliciously minute to gloriously epic. It’s also a wonderful surprise that so many key scenes revolve around interactions between Edith and Lucille, many of them amongst the best written and performed in the film. This might be a romance at heart, but that doesn't come at the cost of strong and intimidating female characters.
Even while playing with familiar tropes, the film offers genuine twists and turns, bolstered by a small but carefully crafted collection of characters and flashes of genuine horror.
‘Crimson Peak’ is an absolute gift for horror fans, an exquisitely executed gothic romance overflowing with style. Whether it be moments of horror, romance or melodrama, Guillermo del Toro crafts them with the surety of a great artist, and even when it reaches the heights of ridiculousness, you can’t help but giggle with glee at its audacity. This is old-fashioned horror in the best possible way, and a film that deserves to sit comfortably next to the greats. I would happily have wandered through the shadowed, blood-soaked halls of Crimson Peak for many more hours than the two delicious ones we've been offered.