Fear can be as much in the mind as in reality. This concept has always fascinated director Guillermo Del Toro from The Devil’s Backbone to Cronos to Pan’s Labyrinth. His main characters are facing the evil in front of them, even though the supporting characters wouldn’t be able to back-up any of claims.
In Crimson Peak, we are put inside a haunted house straight out of a storybook. Creaking doors, whispering winds, and a dose of unknown evil places Crimson Peak among the rest of Del Toro’s horror resume, but where it differs is in-between the lines and the subtle nuances of classic cinema that create an atmosphere that we think we understand, but must search through the fog to truly appreciate.
Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing, a bright young writer who lost her mother at an early age and lives alone with her father, an aristocrat who made his fortune with his own two hands. “Feel how rough my hands are,” he says to Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), the aspiring inventor looking for a little nudge to get his enterprise moving in the right direction. Sharpe, accompanied by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), hails from England and is looking for money to finance the mines underneath his home, which oozes with crimson clay.
Edith is enamored by this English nobleman, even to the behest of her father and Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), a family friend. But, after family tragedy strikes, Edith follows this enchantment and makes her way to England to join Sharpe as his wife at their estate, known to the locals as Crimson Peak.
Del Toro is most at home once the plot finds its way to England and the Sharpe’s mansion, leaving the expositional pit that carried the first part of the film. He excels when leading us into his mind and allowing the audience to experience the world that he has created for each film. The house becomes a character onto itself and allows Del Toro to put his hair down and create frights.
But what sets Crimson Peak apart from his previous work is the statement he made on Twitter six days before release, saying that Crimson Peak “is not a horror film” rather it is a “Gothic romance.” It is easy to forget this as you watch the commercials for the film, or just come in with a mindset from watching the modern landscape of populist horror films. This isn’t a movie that’s number one priority is making you cover your eyes with freight.
It became apparent as I watched that this was Del Toro’s goal. It became ever more clear when I heard the four teenagers a row back begin to snicker as Hiddleston and Chastain shared a scene together. There is a level of overacting that happens among the entire cast of the film, but it became clearer when I started to think more about these two highly talented actors on screen at this moment. Thinking back to my viewing of Frankenstein (1931) the week before, I realized that this is the template for Del Toro and Crimson Peak.
The performances have a twinge of camp to them, but that’s the goal. Channeling these classical sensibilities is the intention of Crimson Peak, explaining the lack of jaw-dropping scares for a quieter and creepy affair between the three main characters. Always enamored with the 1931 classic by James Whale, even going as far as to trying to make his own version, Del Toro has always had a fascination with the horror classic and Crimson Peak becomes his love letter to them.
Draped in Gothic garbs and flowing with this old-school energy, Crimson Peak is as personal to Guillermo Del Toro as Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, as it dives into a subject he has long yearned to make — a classic Hollywood horror film.
It has its share of faults — mainly in terms of plot and character — but those are forgivable and at its core, the film has such an atmosphere and aesthetic so cloaked in classic Hollywood that it’s hard not to love what Del Toro is doing. It may not be what the commercials advertise it as, but this “horror film” has a lot to show even if it doesn’t say it all so well.