If there’s any director who deserves a lot more mainstream attention, it’s Guillermo Del Toro. Throughout his career he’s created a wide number of incredible, engaging films, all with one key element, the monsters. From his Spanish language films, mainly The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, to his English filmography all being films about monsters both good (the Hellboy films) and bad (Pacific Rim). The style of his films though varies wildly, his Spanish films feeling more intense and surreal and his English films being more crowdpleasing, there’s never really been a bridge between those two styles, until now. Crimson Peak is the first film since Pan’s Labyrinth where we get to see the true Del Toro, one who embraces the monsters and the gothic.
The plot of the film focuses on Edith Cushing, an author living in Buffalo, struggling to get her manuscript published, mainly due to it being related to ghosts, which she says are metaphors for the past, calling her stories, stories with ghosts in them rather than ghost stories (a rather apt description of the film itself). One day, she meets Sir Thomas Sharp, a member of the aristocracy who came to Buffalo trying to get funding for a drill to extract the clay beneath his house. Cushing and Sharp end up falling in love and get married, moving back to his home in Cumberland, Allerdale Hall, along with Sharp’s sister Lucille. However, at Allerdale Hall, Edith starts seeing ghosts, along with getting warnings about Crimson Peak, the informal name of the house in winter. Now the main element of the film that works is the romance. As Del Toro himself said, this is a gothic romance rather than a gothic horror film and the romance between Edith and Thomas is executed brilliant, although I’ll get more into that when I talk about the acting. That said, the film doesn’t skimp out on the scare factor. Sure there aren’t any scares as traditionally thought of, but what the film does incredibly well is tension. Del Toro is one of the modern masters of creating tension in a film, just watch the Pale Man scene from Pan’s Labyrinth, and he’s on top form here. There’s this prevailing sense of dread when we get to Allerdale Hall, meshed well with some shocking acts of violence, and we constantly fear for Edith throughout the film. This works especially well due to the actions of the Sharp’s, you know that there is something up between the two of them (although the full reveal is more disturbing than I originally thought) with the dialogue in their scenes creating this sense of fear. This helps the audience put themselves in Edith’s shoes, her reactions to the horrors she sees matching the audience reaction, but the film never makes Edith the damsel in distress, her intelligence shining through and keeping her safe throughout most of the film, with the main obstacle to her being the environment, which I’ll talk more about later. I also really liked the way the film depicted the aristocracy, showing the extreme lengths that people will go to to maintain their wealth, along with the culture clash between those who were born into wealth and those who worked to get to where they are, represented by Edith’s dad.
The acting meanwhile, helps to sell the gothic romance part of the film, mainly with Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston. Wasikowska does a great job as Edith, showing her intelligence all the way through, along with showing how easily someone could fall for a person like Thomas Sharp and as the film goes on, her reactions to the horrific events at Allerdale Hall feel really natural which further helps the audience put themselves in her shoes. Hiddleston meanwhile shows a lot of depth as Thomas Sharp, showing a real caring nature to the character which, aided by incredible chemistry between him and Wasikowska, builds up the romance in the film. He’s also great at showing the determination to get his machine to extract clay working and his frustration when it doesn’t. The real strength in his performance though comes with the darker side of the character, showing a truly disturbing side to the character, but always letting you see his caring side, which I don’t think anyone other than Hiddleston could have pulled off that well. Originally, Emma Stone and Benedict Cumberbatch were cast as the leads but I’m so thankful they dropped out, Stone, whilst a great actress is better suited for contemporary films whilst Wasikowska always has this old soul quality which suits period pieces. Cumberbatch meanwhile, whilst I’m sure he could show the darker side of Sharp, doesn’t quite have the same level of dark, introspective depth as Hiddleston. The real standout of the film though is Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharp, and I can’t say much more without spoiling the film since, whilst she’s great throughout most of the film, at the end, her performance reaches its peak and makes all the other elements of it throughout the film fall together, showing the depth of the character throughout the film. Of the other cast members, Charlie Hunnam does a good job, acting as a great counterpoint to Hiddleston, along with adding to the idea that Edith is not a damsel in distress near the end of the film, Jim Beaver is great as Edith’s dad, showing a clear love for his daughter and a rightful mistrust of the Sharp’s and Burn Gorman is entertaining in his cameo, having the best mutton chops in a film since Clifton Collins Jr in Pacific Rim, although I think his character was a bit underutilised and served as a bit of a plot convenience.
The real strength of the film though comes with the production design, mainly in relation to Allerdale Hall. The house is one of the best sets constructed for a film in recent years, showing a real life, with the wind giving the house its own breath (something commented on by the characters) and the clay seeping through the house, making it look like the house is bleeding, adding to the disturbing nature of the film. The leaves and the snow falling through a hole in the roof further adds to the atmosphere of the house, along with showing the power of the elements that keeps Edith trapped there. The dilapidated nature meanwhile creates a history for the house and for the family, adding to the strength of the characters. The lighting meanwhile adds to the atmosphere, mainly with the fog at the end and the scenes at night where Edith walks around the house with a candelabra in hand, putting you into the gothic mindset of the film. The production design is matched by the costume design, with the costumes for the Sharp’s adding to the dark, foreboding nature of the film and Edith’s costumes acting as a great contrast, mainly the white nightdresses she wears creating a bit on an angelic feeling, and the yellow dresses she wears clashing with the red of the clay, especially when she goes down into the clay mine and sees the clay rendering pits. Del Toro brings these all together to create an incredible visual experience, putting it up there with the great old dark house stories. If there’s one thing that lets the technical side of the film down it’s the ghost themselves. On a plot level they work incredibly well, acting as messengers, foretelling doom, rather than looking to scare, and the designs for them are incredible, the colours mixing with the condition of their bodies and their movements (provided by Doug Jones, who’s always great in these roles) to create brilliant designs. It’s just a shame that the CG is really distracting. In a film where so much attention was put into the practical designs, the CG sticks out like a sore thumb, not meshing with the rest of the designs. These characters could, and should, have been done practically which would have added to the atmosphere of the film.
Overall, Crimson Peak continues Del Toro’s string of great films, providing a great match between his Spanish and English styles. Sure the ghosts themselves could have been done better and a few elements of the plot feel a bit contrived but the mix of gothic horror and romance works brilliantly, aided by incredible production design and top notch performances from Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, creating a true work of gothic genius. It’s not exactly a scary film but it was never intended to be, to paraphrase a line from the film, it’s not a ghost story, it’s a romance with ghosts in it.
My Rating: 4.5/5