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‘Crimson Peak’ is delightfully gorgeous and spooky

By Nate Taskin

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(Crimson Peak Official Facebook Page)

(Crimson Peak Official Facebook Page)

The always-inventive writer-director Guillermo del Toro has made his best English-language movie to date.

Sumptuous and lovely, “Crimson Peak” is a ghost story with precious few scares. It derives its creep factor from atmosphere and vibe rather than in-your-face boos and shrieks. And del Toro, one of the most ambitious and creative filmmakers working today, has stressed that the film is more of a gothic drama than horror.

As the main character, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), points out when she hands her manuscript to an incredulous publisher, “It’s not a ghost story; it’s a story with ghosts in it.”

The film opens in the waning days of the 19th century. Edith Cushing resides in Buffalo, New York as a young writer. Though she makes a passionate argument for the wistful necessity of ghost stories, she struggles to make a living because of both genre and gender bias in the literature scene.

Stifled by bourgeois boredom, Edith finds a new joie de vivre when Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) enters her city looking into investors for an invention that extracts red clay from his ancestral family estate. Sharpe hopes to return his clan to the aristocratic prosperity he remembers from his childhood.

Charmed by Thomas’ smoldering stares and their shared interest in the haunted past, Edith falls in love with him.  Though her father (played by Jim Beaver, doing what he does best as a tough but sweet old man) mistrusts his Old Money foppishness, an unfortunate accident that transpires allows the two to wed. Before long, they spirit off to the Sharpe’s English mansion, Allerdale Hall, along with Thomas’s peculiar sister, Lucille.

Allerdale, perched atop the titular Crimson Peak, is the true star of the film. A sinking, decrepit house, the way the wind gusts through its shadowy hallways makes it feel like it’s always inhaling a breath. Those vivid, swirling shades of blue and red and del Toro’s meticulous, almost fetishistic attention to detail – every little teapot and door handle feels like it has its own backstory – absolutely enraptured me.

Some may call this sentiment pat, but I would invite the viewer to luxuriate in the film’s visual pleasures. Bathe in its glorious color palette. With a creaky elevator, whistling fireplace, and a gargantuan hole atop the main stairwell where gentle drops of snow flutter down to the floor, this haunted house feels trapped out of time.

The human characters in this movie delight just as much as its inanimate objects. Though her character is perhaps a touch on the Mary Sue side , Mia Wasikowska’s wise, yet wide-eyed gaze entrances the viewer. Her earnestness is played without a hint of irony.

Wasikowska knows del Toro’s vision, and matches it superbly. As she tiptoes down the restless hallway in her elegant white gown, candlestick raised in the air, she crafts an image straight out of a Mary Shelley novel.

Hiddleston at once appears affectionate and charming, all the while disguising a clearly wounded soul that simmers just beneath the surface. With his seductive, viper-like face, we understand how Edith could fall in love with such a person, even when there are a million red flags warning her to jump ship.

Part of the film’s charm is the contrast between its wide scope and narrow, intimate setting. The only other major cast member is the jealous sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Though she may not look the type, Jessica Chastain knows the right amount of ham to employ at any given moment.

From offering a low-key grimace to going all out bonkers, she walks a delicate tightrope between deliciously wicked and overwhelming cheesy. Chastain, who has never before been allowed this much scenery to chew, delights in her wickedness, and I followed in turn.

As much of an achievement its gothic atmosphere is, the film’s greatest weakness may be the ghosts themselves. From an aesthetic standpoint, they look delightfully creepy, with their fully exposed ribcages, oily paper skin, and spindly, snake-like fingers. Yet their motion-captured, obvious CGI feels at odds with the mythic vibe that del Toro has crafted. They feel more like background scenery than the actual background scenery, and never feel like characters.

“Crimson Peak” is, above all else, wrought with tragedy. While some may find its plot predictable, I found that the sense of inevitability that the film evokes only serves to highlight its themes of melancholic nostalgia for an era long since past. Long past its prime, the moldy and rotten Allerdale Hall is a relic from a time that we can never visit, though its legacy still reverberates inside its occupants today.

Sometimes the most frightening aspects of our lives are not the unknown demons up in their castles, but the monsters we face everyday: incorporeal demons that have left the earth and remained in our hearts. Guillermo del Toro understands this aimless, futile need to escape one’s legacy, and has figured out a way to express these ideas through lush, exquisite, wholly eerie storytelling.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]

About the Writer
Nate Taskin, Assistant Arts Editor
Bias in reviews is not a bad thing – it’s what makes critics great.
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