Having somewhat of a crush on Guillermo del Toro’s movies, I watched Crimson Peak soon after it came out, despite my being a huge chicken. But I refused to review it because I was sure I didn’t really get it: the film had gotten tepid reviews, but my initial reaction was anything but lukewarm. On a recent del Toro kick I’ve rewatched it and came to the same conclusion: Crimson Peak is kind of great.
Okay, it’s not epic story-telling the way The Shape of Water is, but it’s a visual master piece that succeeds in both creeping us out and sucking us in.
Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a young woman both relatable but maddening because she spurns the favour of her childhood friend, a mild-mannered, handome doctor who cares for her (Charlie Hunnam) in favour of the mysterious badboy newcomer (Tom Hiddleston). Even the brutal murder of her beloved father doesn’t stop her from flitting off to England to a crumbling old mansion atop a mountain that oozes blood-red clay with new hubby Thomas (Hiddleston) and his wicked sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) as her only (living) roommates.
Del Toro has crafted an ode to gothic ghost stories. The story is simple but the visuals a sumptuous feast, with every inch of his Victorian sets crammed with macabre detail that are never without meaning. He couldn’t do it without some talented help. Thomas E. Sanders (Braveheart, Hook, Star Trek: Beyond; Oscar nominated for Saving Private Ryan and Dracula), who died earlier this year, was responsible for the incredibly rich production design. The mansion was built in its entirety on a sound stage, its layered look reflecting the generations of the Sharpe family who would have lived within it. Although inspired by period architecture, this being a del Toro film, everything was amplified and magnified. The details are familiar but the effect they create it startling and rather lavish. It helps to create a world in which the supernatural feels like a natural fit. Kate Hawley (Edge of Tomorrow, Suicide Squad), costumer extraordinaire, used a lot of the same principles on her end. Every single piece in the film was hand-stitched specifically for it. Though styles and silhouettes were inspired by the fashion of the time (circa 1901), every piece is elevated and made more moody, more dramatic. Weeks and weeks were spent stitching an intricate detail onto one of Chastain’s dresses that gets a lot of screen time. And this being a haunting ghost story, every costume had to look just as meticulous from behind, for those eerie shots down darkened hallways.
Tom Hiddleston I can generally take or leave (well, preferably leave) but Jessica Chastain continues to impress with her versatility and restraint. And interestingly, it’s del Toro staple Doug Jones who packs a major wallop. A classically-trained mime and contortionist, most of Jones’ best work is done under heavy layers of prosthetics, but embodying several of the ghosts in this film, he reminds us just how creepy a mere movement of the arm can be.
Guillermo del Toro is a master orchestrator of aesthetic and imagination. Crimson Peak’s script doesn’t quite hold up to its incredible production design, but it chills your bones when it wants to and sets your blood pumping overtime when it needs to. There are twisted monsters hidden in the depths of the Allerdale mansion, but like his crowning achievement The Shape of Water, they aren’t always who you expect.