By Jack Ryan, Senior Staff Writer
As visionary director Guillermo del Toro has stated on numerous occasions, his newest creation, "Crimson Peak," is not a horror film, but a Gothic romance.
This may come as a surprise, given the marketing and trailers for the film, but within seconds it is clear that del Toro has a clean-cut vision for what is to come, and genre is merely a formality. Like many of his past ventures into the supernatural and fantastic, "Crimson Peak" reveals an auteur in complete control of his product, constructing a cinematic experience that is entirely his, for better or worse.
In "Crimson Peak," young Edith Cushing sees dead people. They've been with her since her mother passed away and subsequently reached out to her from the afterlife, with a singular ghastly warning: "Beware of Crimson Peak."
Years later, grown Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a writer living in New York at the turn of the century. She still resides with her supportive father, a wealthy self-made man, and she prefers long nights of reading and writing to dancing at balls. Early supernatural experiences led her to write a ghost story, which she asserts is not so, but rather, "A story with a ghost in it."
Things quickly begin to change after a British inventor named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) comes to Edith's father searching for investments. Although he is initially turned down, he manages to catch Edith's eye and extends his stay to spend time with her.
That's about 15 minutes of the film's plot, but I dare not say much more, as the narrative of "Crimson Peak" is a labyrinth that we slowly gain a birds-eye-view of as the story progresses.
Del Toro's vintage vision is evident in the many homages that "Crimson Peak" pays to the past. Edith might as well have been the fourth Brontë sister, shots call back films of Hitchcock and F.W. Murnau and the entire film has this bleak romanticism reminiscent of the Victorian Era. Honestly, this film should be placed next to "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights" on every bookshelf.
However, just because "Crimson Peak" isn't a horror film doesn't mean it isn't horrifying.
Despite their translucent nature, the demonic ghosts that haunt and creep through Edith's life always feel real and dangerous. There are a few scenes that are so graphic and gruesome they achieve their own disgusting allure - bloody water pouring out of a sink onto a corpse has never looked so good.
The cast of "Crimson Peak" is powerful, particularly the big three at the middle of the story. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith with the perfect combination of intuition and trust, and Hiddleston bounces between deception and truth in such a way that we can never be certain if he has another secret agenda.
However, Jessica Chastain steals the show as Thomas' sister Lucille by dismissing her usual sentimental matriarch type for something far more sinister. She conjures a level of fear in just one look that most contemporary horror films can barely manage in an entire movie.
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All of these brilliant achievements pale in comparison to the crown jewel of "Crimson Peak" - the production design of the eponymous manor itself. The enormous single set creates aesthetic beauty through its dreadful condition: the floor sinks to the blood red clay mines beneath, the deteriorated roof opens the indoors to the harsh winter.
More importantly, however, the manor is structurally fluid. So, as long crane shots track Edith throughout the house, the viewer begins to piece together a mental map of the entire floor, bit by bit.
Visually, "Crimson Peak" is nothing short of sublime, sucking the audience into its world through del Toro's suffocating style. The surreal blood-and-oil hues of the various specters contrast grimly with Edith's virgin white attire and the snow that drifts into the manor. Most importantly, the computer-generated imagery (CGI) of the ghosts never feels like a technological intrusion, but like a more horrible history being oozed out of the walls.
Parallel to the work of its protagonist, "Crimson Peak" is not a horror film, but a film with horror in it. Grotesque spirits lurk through the hallways and corridors, but it becomes clear very quickly that true horrors are derived from the living - humanity is not necessarily humane.
3 1/2 stars