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“CRIMSON PEAK” (Movie Review)

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Early in CRIMSON PEAK, Mia Wasikowska’s aspiring writer describes her first attempt at a novel by saying that it’s “not a ghost story, it’s a story with ghosts in it.” That idea is key to enjoying Guillermo del Toro’s latest, a lush, lavish masterpiece of Gothic atmosphere whose story pays homage to classic old-dark-house and romantic thrillers.

The spirits are indeed a secondary concern in del Toro and Matthew Robbins’ script, though we are introduced to its protagonist as a young girl being spooked by the shade of her recently deceased mother. Years later (i.e. 1901), our heroine, who bears the loaded name Edith Cushing, expresses creative ambitions well beyond the rest of her social circle in Buffalo, NY, and gently rebuffs the romantic interests of childhood friend turned handsome doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, in a role far removed from his starring turn in del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM). Her feelings about the possibilities of love change, however, once she meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who seems to have stepped full-blown out of one of Edith’s preferred fictions, with his handsome yet vulnerable features, mane of dark hair and seductive gestures.

Thomas has traveled from Britain in hopes of securing financing from Edith’s wealthy father Carter (a terrific Jim Beaver) for a machine that will dig up valuable clay from beneath his home turf. There’s something about Thomas that Carter doesn’t trust, however, and in a calculated risk, del Toro lets us know early on that Carter’s right, revealing that Thomas’ wooing of Edith has sinister ulterior motives. Once he has married Edith and spirited her off to his ancestral mansion, Allerdale Hall (a.k.a. Crimson Peak), the suspense builds not from where her inevitable peril will arise, but whether she’ll figure it out in time to escape the clutches of Thomas and his off-kilter sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

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The first act of CRIMSON PEAK is absolutely terrific, blending vibrant, old-fashioned melodrama with a wealth of note-perfect period detail. Del Toro revels in plunging into the past to mine social mores for all the conflict they’re worth and appoint them with all the art-directed trimmings. The love triangle, the disapproving father, the fancy ball where Thomas charms Edith—it’s all done up in great, intoxicatingly dramatic style, with a couple of apparitional visits and one shockingly violent setpiece to keep the horrific undercurrents flowing.

And if you think this section of the film is visually striking, just wait till you get to Allerdale Hall. That’s where CRIMSON PEAK truly becomes a visual feast, as production designer Thomas Sanders, who worked similar wonders on BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, has crafted a haunted mansion to end all haunted mansions. Standing tall and ominous on the outside yet crumbling on the inside to the point where dead leaves and snow drift in through holes in the ceiling, Allerdale is an embodiment of wealth giving way to decay, with new, striking sights in every room, sumptuously shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen. Kate Hawley’s resplendent costumes follow suit (pardon the expression); “beautiful” isn’t a superlative traditionally used to describe horror films, but it sure applies here.

Amidst all this tarnished opulence, Edith becomes increasingly suspicious of Thomas and Lucille and begins to uncover the dark secrets within Allerdale’s walls (her investigation evidently distracting her from her writing ambitions, which are unfortunately largely forgotten once she has relocated). What she discovers takes her by surprise more than it will the audience; CRIMSON PEAK is instead carried to its conclusion by its living, breathing mood and three impassioned central performances. Wasikowska, who’s making a specialty of this kind of role (as also seen in JANE EYRE and even the modern Gothic STOKER), is a persuasively independent-minded heroine whom one can also believe would fall under the spell of Thomas, given the right blend of alluring, manipulative and troubled shadings by Hiddleston. More conspicously cold and calculating is Chastain’s Lucille, and the actress whose maternal warmth was tapped in the del Toro-produced MAMA has a high old time as a woman whose ministrations are more malevolently inspired.

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And, oh yes, there are ghosts creeping about as well, though they remain supporting characters attempting to warn or guide Edith through the house whose true horrors are of a largely human kind. They’re performed by a pair of spindly-bodied genre regulars—del Toro veteran Doug Jones and [REC]’s Javier Botet—done up in appropriately grotesque prosthetics and digitally infused into the scenes. That combination of old-fashioned craft and up-to-the-minute technical process is representative of CRIMSON PEAK as a whole—a film in which del Toro expresses his love for bygone tropes via state-of-the-art cinematic wizardry.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor. He now serves as editor-in-chief of the magazine while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews, as well as a contributing editor/writer for this website.
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