Remember: “It’s not a ghost story, but it has a ghost in it.”
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring author more interested in becoming the next Mary Shelley than pursuing a husband. Being the late 1800s, her self-made father (Jim Beaver) would prefer to see her married off to local Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), but a destitute aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) has caught her eye with his appearance and her mind with his dreams. Seeking investments to restart the blood-red clay mine beneath his English countryside manor owned by he and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Sir Thomas claims Edith for his wife after Mr. Cushing’s mysterious death. Known only to Edith, a warning from her mother’s ghost is fulfilled when she hears her new home at Allerdale Hall bears the whispered name “Crimson Peak.”
No one can dispute that this is a Gothic tale with all the trappings, but the details vary from viewer to viewer. There’s a reason for this; the story is rather simple but the atmosphere is complex. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to this kind of spooky film but this one boasts fewer monsters than his more recent fare. Main character Edith essentially reveals the rules of the film as she tries in vain to explain to a publisher her own intentions. The problem is one of advertising since the trailers offer little of the plot while celebrating the visuals…and it, like the story, is darkly beautiful. Viewers expecting Hellboy or Pacific Rim may be disappointed, but fans of slow-burn ghostly fare like Nicole Kidman’s The Others and del Toro’s own Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark will enjoy the feel of their skin both crawling and tingling.
Allerdale Hall and all the imagination of Crimson Peak are, in typical del Toro fashion, characters unto themselves: monsters of iron, plaster, and wood; even the experimental clay extractor Sir Thomas expands from tiny toy into full size is a toothy creature poised to chew up anything foolish enough to step too close, including Thomas himself. The music is matched to the productions as well, competing with all the other elements for your attention. There’s an intelligence to both the characters and the story; secrets don’t remain hidden for too long; viewers catching the clues are rewarded to find their heroine isn’t too far behind because she refuses to play the victim. Jessica Chastain morphs into her darkest character yet, pairing with Tom Hiddleston in the shadows, yet Hiddleston comes alive in a completely different way as he turns to the light of Mia Wasikowska’s Edith.
There are scenes toward the end where very little action is taking place, everything emoted through dialogue or even as little as a glance; the lush look of the film is almost a distraction in these parts, and some bits seem a little stretched. It isn’t difficult to understand why viewers expecting more paranormal activity might be disappointed. Similar to the remake of The Haunting, the house looks like it could get up off of its foundation and lunge at you. Wisely, del Toro does the unexpected, keeping the supernatural elements grounded with a clever rule to allow the characters to act and the spirits to merely influence. Some may feel the CGI ghost effects are underwhelming as well, but they do serve the narrative; this isn’t a ghost story, remember? Dark secrets, ghostly warnings, and deeds most foul are the order of the day with a bit of romance and a dash of the supernatural; it’s everything you could want in a Gothic horror movie.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)