This is a very enjoyable movie from Guillermo Del Toro—maybe even his most visually striking movie—but not his best. Crimson Peak offers up some good suspenseful moments and it plays around with traditional gender roles. It is even quite meta, but to get to all of the juicy parts of this gothic/romance/horror movie, you have to sit through a whole first part that is quite literally a different movie all on its own. If you’re looking for jump scares and more traditional horror movies, this isn’t that. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful film that has great cinematography and acting.
Okay, so the only way to review this movie and to do it justice is to break up the synopsis into two parts. Please imagine the first part being read in a comedy narrator’s trailer voice, and the second in a horror narrator’s trailer voice:
Meet Edith Cushing, she’s an independent young writer living in the US during the early 1900s. But the patriarchy keeps trying to squash her creativity by telling her that she should only write romance novels. She doesn’t need a man and doesn’t even plan on getting married. That is until charming baronet Thomas Sharpe arrives from across the pond. He’s a Tom Hiddleston-y type of man who quickly makes Edith fall in love with him with one, perfect, elegant waltz. But does her father approve of this dashing foreigner, and will their love blossom with his opposition to it?
Then, when her father dies under mysterious circumstances Edith travels to England with her new husband to live with him and his mysterious sister. She moves into their giant, dilapidated, mansion that sits atop a red clay mine. Strange and supernatural occurrences start happening to Edith. Now, she must discover the secrets of this centuries-old mansion while at the same time questioning the motives of her husband and his sister who may not be all they appear to be.
The massive shifts in tone that this movie goes through can be a bit off-putting, especially in the beginning. The movie takes a nosedive from Pride and Prejudice into dark territory, and it also tends to get quite visually gory in a flash. I found myself getting a bit bored with these upper class dialogues and mannerisms of lords and ladies, only to get shocked back into the movie with a sudden visceral scene.
The performances of three of the four main characters are excellent. Tom Hiddleston as Thomas Sharpe feels fully organic. Honestly, I cannot really say much because Hiddleston just seems to be his natural charming self. Mia Wasikowska is also comfortable in her role as Edith. She walks a fine line between being just vulnerable enough, but at the same time fully capable to take action when she needs to—though this character shift is much more pronounced in the second half of the movie.
The actor that truly stands out against everyone is Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe. She is just magnificent in this role and very fun to watch. Her flip-flops in tone, mirroring the movie in a way, are excellent. She goes from full-blown aggressive to icy cold at the drop of a coin and injects her character with such raw force that I found I wanted to watch more of her and less of everyone else. Finally, there is Charlie Hunnam as Alan McMichael. I don’t understand del Toro’s obsession with this actor, but then again I’ve never watched Sons of Anarchy. In this movie, as in Pacific Rim, Hunnam is just a guy, a kind of blank space that is just there. His American accent, again, like in Pacific Rim, is laughable and sometimes downright inaudible.
The biggest mistake that I feel this movie does is in its marketing. This is not a horror movie, as the trailers would lead you to believe. Instead, this is very much a gothic horror in lieu of something like Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Those going into Crimson Peak may feel a bit cheated for being led astray, especially with the long romance that makes up the first half of the movie. This is not to say that the movie doesn’t have its scares. The CGI has moments of greatness. A scene in which a ghost slowly materializes in a bathtub stands out. The movie has its gory, violent, moments as well, but, in the end, it just isn’t scary. Therefore, if you go to this movie you should, in the end, go for three main reasons: the visual beauty of the setpieces, the great acting of its leads, and Tom Hiddleston’s bare butt.
Some movies that are similar to Crimson Peak and that do merit a good viewing are The Others with Nicole Kidman. Sharing a similar setting, this movie is very atmospheric with a great little twist at the end. For a modern, and much scarier, take on a similar theme I fully recommend Kim Jee-won’s A Tale of Two Sisters. This Korean movie is a both a psychological and supernatural powerhouse. There was also an American re-make titled The Uninvited that I’ve never seen but that got good reviews.
A Note on Meta
One review of this movie, by Jeremy Jahns on youtube, points out that the ghosts don’t necessarily serve a huge function. He makes mention that if you were to take out the ghosts the movie wouldn’t change in any significant way. However, in the movie Edith is writing a ghost story that mimics the plot of Crimson Peak in significant ways. She makes mention, and those familiar with the genre of Gothic Horror will know this, that the ghosts are representations of the past. This is extremely pronounced in the movie, as the ghosts are fragments of a violent past encroaching upon an equally violent present. In this way, the movie is a masterpiece within its own genre.