Crimson Peak, the new film from Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro, is very much an old fashioned horror movie. It’s gothic horror, the type that isn’t seen much in the 21st century, but one that was prolific in the early days of cinema thanks to the efforts of production houses like Hammer and the genre-defining films from Universal. Does that take on horror hold up, though? It does, at least in this case, and I think a good portion of the credit should go to the unflinching artistic vision of Guillermo del Toro.
Crimson Peak is a difficult movie to describe without spoiling. Sufficed to say, it follows Edith Cushing, a young newly-wed woman (Mia Wasikowska) who moves from America to her husband Thomas Sharpe’s (Tom Hiddleston) estate in England towards the end of the 19th century. Also residing there is her new sister-in-law Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and, it quickly becomes apparent. A bunch of horribly disfigured ghosts quickly make their presence known to Edith.
It’s easy to look at promotional material for Crimson Peak and make a quick cursory judgement as to its content, but it likely wouldn’t be accurate. The film presents an immaculate tone, as del Toro spends pretty much the entirety of the first act building suspense and mystery. It’s a testament to this tone that when the horror finally kicks in, it’s not the ghosts that are most scary but it’s the desolate windswept environment that surrounds Edith’s new abode. She’s fenced in by the elements and that oppressive atmosphere, both physical and metaphorical, is the film’s biggest draw.
It isn’t actually an especially scary film, it’s instead best described as creepy or unsettling. There’s no moment here that will make audiences jump from their seats, but there is a consistent and pervasive sense that something is deeply wrong.
As a director, I often find Guillermo del Toro to be hit or miss. He’s an auteur, there’s no doubt, but he’s capable of both the emotional gut punches of Pan’s Labyrinth and the misguided shock and awe campaigns of Pacific Rim. Here it’s something else that he’s trying and he does it very well.
Del Toro films scenes with a stylistic flourish, a slightly over-the-top bit of theatricality that marks a clear nod to the film’s mid-20th century influences. This slightly elevated style extends to the performances as well, with Jessica Chastain fully committing to an undeniably over-the-top and occasionally cartoonish performance that nonetheless works and Tom Hiddleston turning in a kind of charm and quiet menace that channels the late Vincent Price.
However, Mia Wasikowska is the anchor and she does it very well. She’s our window to the madness unfolding around her and she makes a very capable heroine. The third act in particular serves as an especially impressive showcase for Wasikowska, boosted by the ever confident cinematic eye of del Toro.
It’s worth noting how dark the movie can get at points, especially in its finale. While most of the more horrifying imagery is intentionally telegraphed before it appears onscreen, the film’s use of violence is surprising.
So much of the movie’s identity is predicated on tone and atmosphere–a less is more approach–that when the knives eventually come out (and they do, but not often) the sheer brutality of the violence is unexpected. This is not a movie that cuts away to keep its audience comfortable. Instead, it’s one that harnesses that discomfort and adds to it. It’s an effective use of violence that actually justifies it, a move I always welcome given the irritating tendency of most horror filmmakers to just throw gore at the screen.
The movie has a few little problems. The cause of all the terror turns out to be a little thin in its justification. There are a number of elements that could have been far more effective if more time had been spent on them, and Charlie Hunnam’s character sticks out like a sore thumb, as if he was added to the script at the last minute. But for all those small flaws the film does exactly what it sets out to do.
I imagine this will be a divisive movie, if only because I get the impression that a lot of people think it’s something that it isn’t. In the front row of my screening, there were two elderly women who clearly thought the movie was something else. Their outraged gasps could be heard whenever violence would break out and a few of the darker third act twists clearly caught them off guard. As I left the theatre, I overheard one tell the other that she wouldn’t “be going to one of these again! I thought this was going to be a lovely old fashioned movie.” And while Crimson Peak is old-fashioned, one should definitely not underestimate it’s bite.