“It's not a ghost story. It's a story with ghosts in it. The ghosts are a metaphor,” says Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, Stoker), an aspiring novelist attempting to persuade a skeptical publisher to give her book a chance. On another level, director Guillermo del Toro is using the line to give the viewers of Crimson Peak an idea of what sort of movie they're watching. This is a haunted house movie, yes, but the film is less interested in delivering supernatural scares than in serving up the sort of old-fashioned dark romance that one of the Bronte sisters might have thought up on a particularly cold, gloomy winter's day.
Edith lives in Boston with her father Carter (the always-splendid Jim Beaver, Deadwood), a successful industrialist who treasures his relationship with his daughter. Edith's mother passed away when she was just a child, but subsequently re-appeared to Edith as a ghost. The maternal spirit offered a brief warning: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” Fourteen years later, Edith still has no idea what the words “Crimson Peak” mean, but the memory remains sharp in her mind.
Enter Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers), a handsome young man seeking investors for a clay mining device he's created. Sir Thomas brings his proposal to Edith's father, who can't shake the feeling that there's something untrustworthy about this entirely-too-earnest young man. Edith is far less skeptical, and forms a quick emotional bond with Sir Thomas. They love the same kind of fiction, they dance with the same effortless grace and their mutual attraction is undeniable. This development isn't particularly exciting to Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy), who was Edith's childhood friend and has long nursed a crush on her. The budding romance is even less pleasing to Sir Thomas' sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty), who regards Edith with the sort of expression that inspires people to say, “If looks could kill...”
Despite the fact that no one seems particularly happy about it, Edith and Sir Thomas eventually marry. He takes her back to Allerdale Hall, a once-grand English mansion that is now in a state of severe disrepair: the floorboards creak, the walls groan and there's a giant hole in the roof that allows leaves, snow and rain to cascade down into the entrance hall. Lady Lucille serves as Allerdale Hall's primary caretaker, though she mostly devotes herself to serving horribly bitter tea and playing chilly classical selections on her old piano. The clay soil that surrounds the estate is brighter and redder than your average clay – at a glance, you might mistake a clay footprint for a bloody one. Yes, it just so happens that the estate is nicknamed “Crimson Peak” (cue a look of quiet terror from Ms. Wasikowska).
We've had plenty of haunted house movies over the past few decades, but it's been a long time since we've had one as grand and sumptuous as this one (I'd go all the way back to Kubrick's The Shining, one of the film's countless pop culture reference points). Crimson Peak is huge, classical, spine-tingling filmmaking; a large-scale film that isn't afraid of big emotions or grand gestures. It's easy to think of the film in musical terms - “symphonic,” “operatic,” etc. - which is no surprise, given that Del Toro has always been an exceptionally lyrical filmmaker (related: the film's score, by Fernando Velazquez, eschews the harsh atonal stings of modern horror scores and offers an appropriately lush, romantic sound). It feels like the grand summation of the director's countless cultural obsessions; a darkly alluring piece of cinematic expressionism hurled onto the largest possible canvas.
All of the actors are superbly cast, offering precisely the sort of presence their role requires. Wasikowska is practically a specialist in playing characters like Edith – quiet, intelligent young women who follow their curiosity a little further than they ought to (you can see why she was cast as Alice in Wonderland, disastrous as that film – and its interpretation of that character – was). Tom Hiddleston's performance seems designed to exploit the nature of his reputation. He's one of the most frequently swooned-over actors of his generation, and early on he is so suave and charming and perfect that he seems to have sprung forth from the pages of an above-average piece of Hiddleston fan fiction. You see why the sensible Edith is so willing to overlook the obvious. Charlie Hunnam is perhaps given a little less screen time than his character deserves, but he brings precisely the right sort of bland decency to the role. Alan is a good guy, and a much less interesting one.
The film's standout performance comes from Jessica Chastain, who brings a real sense of danger to every scene she appears in. She turns little gestures into big moments, such as the scene in which she quietly torments Edith by scraping her spoon against the side of bowl of porridge to create a nails-on-chalkboard sound. We know immediately that she's up to no good, but the source of her bitterness and anger proves an absorbing mystery. She's more frightening than any of the film's ghosts.
Speaking of which, the ghosts themselves are perhaps the film's least successful element. This is a film of astonishing practical effects and spectacular set design, but the CG-enhanced specters that appear in the film have a blatantly digital look that generally proves distracting. That quibble aside, they're used rather effectively in the story. Ghosts typically fill the role of murderous antagonists in haunted house movies, but those who have seen Del Toro's superb The Devil's Backbone will know that the director's relationship with ghosts tends to be a good deal more complex. In Crimson Peak, the ghosts primarily serve as signposts leading Edith down the right path – their presence is an unsettling puzzle to be solved, not a threat to be vanquished.
I fell head over heels for the movie fairly quickly, but that's because I have a great deal of affection for dark, gothic melodrama and for the movies this one draws inspiration from (The Shining, Hitchcock's Rebecca and Jack Clayton's The Innocents, among others). The film's deliberately old-fashioned vibe may not work for everyone, as evidenced by the many folks in attendance at my screening who decided to amuse themselves by mocking the film's melodramatic tendencies. After all, we live in the age of found footage horror films that bludgeon audiences with tiresomely “naturalistic” performances and an ugly, sloppy, “realistic” aesthetic. In many ways, Crimson Peak feels like a rebuttal to the trends of modern horror, including its insistence on making good scares of secondary importance to good storytelling. While it doesn't quite attain the emotional resonance of The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth (an incredibly high bar, to be sure), it's Del Toro's richest and most exquisitely personal English-language film to date. Not everyone will love the movie, but those who do will love it with the sort of passion few movies inspire.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 2015