From the offset writer/director Guillermo del Toro makes it clear that this isn’t your average horror flick. In fact, Crimson Peak’s uncanny harmonization of 18th century horror and romance may seem so alien to the Paranormal Activity, ‘found footage’ raised generation that del Toro and Co-writer Matthew Robbins stress the film’s unusual genre bend to audiences directly in the opening act. “It’s not a ghost story,” Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing explains in regard to her manuscript. “It’s a story with a ghost in it.” But it’s not a matter of peoples’ supernatural skepticism as it is the specter’s significance, in which she continues to point out that the ghost is rather a “metaphor for the past.” That isn’t to say she doesn’t believe in them, however, for Edith clarifies in the opening line “This as much I know: ghosts are real.”
Sharing her beliefs, right around the time when she’s unwillingly implanting a love story in her tale, is Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) – a man who traveled all the way from Cambridge to seek an investment from Edith’s father, Carter (Jim Beaver), for his proposed clay-digging machine. Instead, after a swiftly paced flurry of Cinderella-esque enchantment, a ghostly visit, and a mysterious murder, Thomas arrives back in Cambridge with both Carter’s money and daughter. Along with Thomas’ wickedly shrewd older sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), the newly wed couple takes up residence in the Sharpe’s ancient family estate. Decaying floorboards creak with every step, as a howling wind enters through a gapping hole in the roof, shaking the structure to its core. And it’s home all the same to the Sharpes, igniting a crackling fire and brewing bitter tea to ignore the moribund mansion. Edith isn’t as quick in her acceptance, following several horrid visits, which, she’s assured, are merely nightmares. No stranger to the supernatural, who’s last ghostly encounter was a warning from her mother when she was only a child, Edith begins to unravel the house’s haunting past, questioning everything from its long list of former residences to the strange local tea, to her love of Thomas.
Following is sci-fi venture in 2013’s Pacific Rim, del Toro establishes his roots in visionary horror – painting a gothic romance with the meticulous aid of Cinematographer Dan Laustsen and Art Director Brandt Gordon. Lausten and del Toro employ a pronounced triadic color scheme of reds, blues and yellows – illustrating conflicting themes of bloody sin and violent histories; cold isolation and cruel dishonesty; stark disruption and righteous truth – all to the thoroughly eerie architecture of scaled corridors, winding staircases, and elaborately period furniture. The unpredictable sound design is just as much a culprit in the mansion’s characterization, leaping between atmospheric moans and groans, though hauntingly literal at times, to deathly silence without a moment’s notice as Edith is stalked by slender blood-soaked skeletal sprits. Admittedly, perhaps more impressive are actually the ghosts’ lack of bodily threat – they are, as Edith described earlier, merely a metaphor for the past. Rather the real threats stem from those who are still living.
The top-billed trio of Wasikowska, Chastain, and Hiddleston each enlist one of the finest performances of their respective careers. Wasikowska innocent complexion and golden locks highlight a disturbing perfection in a corrupt house. Although her childlike wonder echoes Alice in Wonderland, she isn’t afraid to amplify a visceral prowess near the bloody finale. Rejoining her Lawless co-star, Chastain is at the defined peak of the triadic relationship. Donning a masculine terse, obsidian headdress styled in a feminine weave, the actress exhibits a deeply cold aura under a guise of boiling warmth that hints a terrible secret behind her piercing stare. And once that past is out, wielding an oversized butcher’s knife, Chastain becomes ghostly visceral as she seemingly soars through the malevolent climax. Hiddleston and Charlie Hunnam, the latter as Dr. Alan McMichael—who’s investigating the Sharpes be it due to the aforementioned murder or his displeasure in Edith’s newfound love—both enlist fine showings. Profoundly conflicted, Hiddleston emits a vulnerable breach in his Prince Charming façade through a reluctant obedience under Chastain’s venomous dominance – only finding warmth, and striking amenity in the arms of Wasikowska’s purity and acceptance.
Crimson Peak is a triumph in a genre desperate for vision. Yet del Toro is careful in his twists, turns, and bending of this enthralling concoction. He recalls jump scare and haunted house staples but are uses them so sparingly that in contrast to Edith and Thomas’ darkly complex romance they’re given entirely new meaning. Predominately, the estate – called Crimson Peak for the copious amount of crimson clay that turns the pure white snow blood red – is every much a living, breathing character. It’s rugged, holed and decaying structure housing Thomas and Lucille’s comprised, sinful relationship as well as haunting reminders of their bloody attempts at suppressing it. And as Edith explores more and more of its copious secrets, so too does she uncover more about the man she thought she loved. Everything Edith has come to love is coming into question because the only thing she can be certain of is the living past – dead sprits revealing the true monsters are those who still walk the cardinal grounds of the estranged Crimson Peak.
FINAL CUT: Crimson Peak is one of the finest films of this year, erupting with deep performances, seductively gothic visuals, and a triumphant, sincere and wholly passionate vision felt until visceral ghastly conclusion.
Crimson Peak receives a 5/5.