If you approach Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak with visions of it being another Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), chances are you will be disappointed. But the simple truth is that the director’s latest was never intended to be anything other than the lushest gothic horror movie ever made. This isn’t an attempt to reinvent the genre, but an attempt to create the ultimate expression of it. And, if he doesn’t entirely succeed, he comes so close that complaining feels like splitting hairs. This is, first and foremost, a film of atmosphere and style, but this is not empty style. No, it’s all in the service of creating an uncanny sense of creepy dread with the threat of violence always in evidence — and it’s all done without violating its chosen genre.
The film stars Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing, a young woman, with ideas of being a writer, who finds her literary endeavors dismissed because of her sex and because she’s written what is referred to as a “ghost story.” When she objects that it’s not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts in it, she might well be speaking of the film itself. She is certainly addressing her own experience, since — as we’ve seen in the striking prologue — she’s certainly had an encounter with a ghost. The story, however, centers on the arrival of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston — looking for all the world like Gabriel Byrne’s Lord Byron in Ken Russell’s Gothic, which I suspect is not coincidental) in her world. He’s come to America — along with his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) — to attempt to secure financing for his invention to mine the rich, blood-red (of course) clay beneath his decaying estate in the English Lake District.
Instead of finding the money he hoped for from Edith’s father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), he finds and romances Edith — something that doesn’t sit well with her father, who has taken a dislike to the young man. It turns out there is good reason to dislike Sharpe. Though the specifics are kept from us, they’re sufficient to allow Cushing to buy off Sharpe and secure a promise that Sharpe will disillusion Edith and leave. But, before Sharpe can leave, Cushing is murdered (though it’s considered an accident), leaving Sharpe free to marry the wealthy heiress and take her home to Cumberland — and the world’s ultimate Old Dark House. It is here, in this crumbling house filled with ghosts, where even the very earth appears to bleed, that Edith will piece together the truth of her situation and the secrets of Thomas and Lucille.
It may be fairly said that Crimson Peak hews pretty close to the basics of gothic horror, which is to say that — at least in broad strokes — little happens that you don’t expect, though you probably don’t expect it to play out quite the way it does. For instance, Edith may be a damsel in distress, but she’s hardly of the helpless kind, even if her former boyfriend (Charlie Hunnam) comes to her rescue — or at least is part of it. Plus, Crimson Peak isn’t story-driven and doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks and twists. No, it relies on atmosphere, filmmaking style and surprisingly compelling characterizations to make it work.
Crimson Peak doesn’t short us on thrills and suspense, and there’s certainly no shortage of things that go bump in the night (or really any time of day) in del Toro’s sumptuous spook house. And, by itself, that would be enough, but it’s too richly complex for that. Unfortunately, it’s also, apparently (to judge by the box office), too complex for mass consumption — or maybe it’s simply a film out of its time. Maybe in a world of cheap shockers — like umpteenth Paranormal Stupidity movie opening this week — there’s just not a market for a movie this classy and thoughtful. That’s not only unfortunate for the film, but it’s unfortunate for us. Rated R for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.