Guillermo del Toro persists in being one of the most engaging visual directors in the business, always out to make what he finds beautiful out of darkness and the unusual. “Crimson Peak” plays to a lot of his interests, one being his love of gothic romance and the other being horror imagery. It’s shot with his eye for beauty in the grotesque and the decaying; the titular mansion, actually called Allerdale Hall, is a ruinous castle with a hole in the ceiling providing a constant stream of snow in the entrance hall while the foundations slowly give way for the home to sink into the red clay. The heightened reality of the setting and tone makes it difficult to describe in comparative terms, for though there are many influences on the film, it remains wholly unique unto itself.
Right from the first few minutes, “Crimson Peak” defies expectation. On the one hand, it has the costume and dialogue of a period setting (this story is set at the turn of the century), but on the other hand, there’s something not quite right about the look. Characters are dressed in garish, almost over-the-top costumes that make no attempt to resemble realistic period garb. Instead, the visuals delight in their heightened state, and it plays like something out of a penny dreadful.
The story follows Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the only daughter of a rich steel baron in New York. She wants to be a writer, her focus on ghost stories and the macabre, something she has had personal experience with since her childhood. Tom Hiddleston plays Sir Thomas Sharpe, an English inventor and aristocrat who lives in his dying mansion with his older sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Edith and Thomas quickly fall in love, but her father disapproves and tries to prevent their union. His untimely death leaves this conflict nonexistent, however. The rest of the story is with Edith in the mansion known because of the red clay it rests upon as Crimson Peak, and she quickly finds there are many dark secrets lurking about in the old house.
The performances, with the exception of Charlie Hunnam (who still struggles with his accent), are all very good, thought the most notable are from Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. They give their characters an extra bit of charm and life that sells the dialogue and their roles. There’s no doubt that something strange is going on between them, but what it is and who among them is more involved is at times difficult to say. There’s a great sense of mystery, but at the same time the narrative flows more like an old fable.
It’s rare to find such a unique movie that defies conventional comparison. It’s truly a new and often bizarre viewing, but that in turn makes it all the more memorable. From the garish and almost entirely practical sets to the ghosts themselves (also a mix of costume and makeup), the movie is brimming with life and color, all masterfully crafted to fit the image Guillermo del Toro wanted. He is a master of atmosphere and mood, especially when he is the craftsman behind their creation. There’s not single shot without his complete control, and it’s obvious.