Guillermo del Toro inexplicably and inexcusably set his cinematic sensibilities aside for his previous film, the mindless techno action extravaganza Pacific Rim. I feared that we had lost a visionary, that he had fallen under the same spell as Michael Bay and sold his soul to make unimaginative, manufactured hack work. By the end of Crimson Peak, del Toro’s new film, the weight of disappointment had been lifted off my shoulders, and my faith had been restored. Here is a literally and figuratively full-blooded horror film that oozes his particular brand of atmosphere from every pore – ghostly monstrosities that emanate from the walls and floors, old machinery, insects that hatch and flutter and writhe in unnatural places.
Del Toro works his sense of style into a plot that, in the best possible sense, relies on every conceivable hallmark of the gothic melodrama. We have the early twentieth-century setting. We have the old, crumbling family manor that sits isolated in the English countryside. We have the unconventional love triangle. We have rushed marriages, past tragedies, the greedy lust for fortunes and estates, dark family secrets, suspicions, and murder. It is, narratively speaking, old fashioned. To an extent, it’s also visually old fashioned, with many scenes transitioning via dissolves or iris that close in on characters’ faces. I’m not criticizing when I say this. If anything, the film is intimately familiar, evoking that primitive yet cathartic need for something both thrilling and disturbingly beautiful.
The central character is Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), whose name, I have no doubt, is an homage to actor Peter Cushing, best known for his work in the British Hammer horror films of the 1950s and ‘60s. A privileged young woman from Buffalo, New York, Edith aspires to become a writer of supernatural fiction, despite gender limitations mandating that she stick to sentimental romance stories. Her interest in the darker genre was sparked when the ghost of her mother visited her years earlier, when she was still a child; as she lay in bed crying, a ghastly, gnarled, skeletal figure enveloped in tendral shadows approaches her and warns in a throaty hiss, “When the time comes … beware of Crimson Peak….”
Her newest manuscript catches the interest of a mysterious but charming British aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). A mechanic and an inventor, he has come to America and appeals to Edith’s father, the wealthy Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), to invest in his latest machine: A huge digging contraption that will make mining the vast deposits of red clay under his estate far easier. Unimpressed by either Sharpe’s idea or his hands, which haven’t been roughened by years of honest, hard work, Carter refuses. But there’s more to this than Sharpe’s lousy pitch. Carter can’t quite put his finger on it, but there’s something about Sharpe he simply doesn’t like. It’s almost as if he believes Sharpe is hiding something. Suspicious, Carter hires a private investigator to do a little background research.
Despite this, Sharpe has been wooing Edith, and she has been falling for him. After a series of events I won’t reveal, the two marry, move to England, and settle in Sharpe’s ancestral estate. It’s a decaying mansion that actually seems to be alive; with every gust of wind, the walls mournfully groan, and with every step on the rotting wood, the floors desperately creak. It even seems to bleed, as the rich deposits of red clay repeatedly seep through the rocky foundation and flow out of the water faucets. This is why it has been given the nickname Crimson Peak … the one place Edith was warned about. So begins Edith’s quest to discover the truth about her husband, his family, and his home, all while trying to evade the very watchful eye of Sharpe’s sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). At the same time, Edith must discover the reason why malformed ghosts have been materializing. Are they trying to tell her something?
Many horror films are too reliant on instant gratification. If something doesn’t pop out of the shadows to make the audience scream every five minutes, the film is typically deemed boring. I, for one, greatly appreciate the horror films that burn slowly, that drip with atmosphere, that build suspense on only the thought of what will end up happening. Crimson Peak works like that; it creates dread with simple shots of someone walking down a hallway late at night, and we get to savor little details like half-melted candles in candelabras, or shadows formed by ornate yet dilapidated wooden archways, or phantom sounds coming from behind intricately-carved doors. Popout scares are used only when absolutely necessary. How wonderful that Guillermo del Toro respects the horror genre, and how grateful I am that his imagination remains as fertile as ever.