Film review: Crimson Peak is more than just a ghost story

Guillermo del Toro pushes Crimson Peak (starring Mia Wasikowska) beyond typical horror film expectations with cinematic style and nostalgia. Photo: Universal Pictures Guillermo del Toro pushes Crimson Peak (starring Mia Wasikowska) beyond typical horror film expectations with cinematic style and nostalgia. Photo: Universal Pictures

As tempting as it is to call the ghostly gothic romance Crimson Peak a return to form for writer-director Guillermo del Toro, let’s take a moment to truly appreciate his role in shaping the movie-going experience as we know it today. It’s been nine years since Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s dark fantasy that got surprising, yet refreshing, traction with audiences for a subtitled, magical realist, metaphor-heavy, R-rated fairy tale set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.

With one film, del Toro—who was primarily known stateside for the comic book adaptations Hellboy and Blade II, but celebrated internationally for supernatural films such as Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone—introduced a level of sophistication and intimacy to the fantasy genre, which too often defaults to tediously epic battle sequences at the expense of genuine emotional turmoil on a smaller scale.

Del Toro spent the bulk of the decade following Pan’s Labyrinth developing projects audiences wanted but Hollywood never got right: the English-language kaiju epic Pacific Rim, Middle Earth expansion pack The Hobbit trilogy (only as co-writer, so the good part). Viewed this way, del Toro is as much a technical trailblazer and fearless auteur as he is a sentimentalist seeking to reconnect cinephiles with styles that Hollywood has long abandoned.

Such is the case with the unerringly engaging Crimson Peak, which has as much in common with Poltergeist as it does with Wuthering Heights. The film tells the story of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of an American industrialist and self-made man in the late 19th century. Edith shares her father’s resilience and work ethic, but focuses most of her attention on reading and attempting to craft her own fiction. Enter Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an intriguing and charming English aristocrat who hopes Edith’s father will invest in his potentially revolutionary digging machine. Though there is unmistakable attraction between Thomas and Edith, the Baronet and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), seem to have ulterior motives for their association with the Cushing family, a mystery which only thickens when Edith marries Thomas and moves into a dilapidated manor in Cumbria with a great many secrets to tell.

Like a magician, del Toro displays all of the narrative and stylistic tools right away without revealing what they mean until the proper time for maximum effect. Edith’s work is written off as a ghost story, leaving her to constantly defend it as a story “with ghosts in it” (much like the film itself). She explains that ghosts are metaphors for the past, a concept that is introduced in the opening scene of Edith’s deceased mother visiting her with a cautionary message, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” We are also shown early on that Thomas is indeed hiding something possibly embarrassing, possibly nefarious, and is willing to work against his self-interest to keep his secret hidden.

Crimson Peak is not a horror film; del Toro’s ghosts do not serve to terrorize us, but remind us of something. Edith is not an audience surrogate but a fully formed character in her own right. This film is about the characters first and foremost, and though it shares some tropes with well-known horror films, it is a creature all its own.

Gorgeous and emotional, nostalgic yet forward-looking, Crimson Peak may not find the same immediate connection with audiences that Pan’s Labyrinth did, but it is without a doubt its stylistic equal.

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