The Halloween season is officially over. As store commercials skip over Thanksgiving to get right to the mass-marketed Christmas season, it’s time to look back and reflect on just what terrifying cinematic horror-shows have guided us through the Hallows Eve witching hour. This past year’s Halloween season was relatively dry with some unremarkable titles and a yearly Paranormal Activity to carry the torch, leaving one to wonder where all the innovation in Horror went.
Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro’s latest cinematic foray into the dark and disturbed, attempts to answer these questions by taking us into a dark, antiquated world and showing us a terrifying tale that transcends time. Is it successful? Well it certainly takes us into a dark and antiquated world at least.
Set in the early 1900s, Crimson Peak tells the story of one Edith Cushing, played by Mia Wasikowska. Edith, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, is plagued by occasional visits from her mother’s ghost telling her to beware of a place called Crimson Peak which is a place she has never heard of before. Her family is soon visited by the mysterious Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English aristocrat looking for American investors. Edith and Thomas quickly fall in love. However when her father protests their relationship, he is soon found dead.
Edith is whisked back to England by Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) but soon finds herself being dragged down a dark rabbit hole in which her newfound romance may not be all that it seems. As her happiness begins to crumble before her eyes and the Sharpes grow ever colder, she must confront a dangerous question: Precisely who are the Sharpes?
Del Toro’s Crimson Peak really isn’t anything particularly revolutionary when broken down into its simplest components. Its narrative is at best extremely simplistic and even outright predictable at times. While Hiddleston and Wasikowska do give very strong performances and manage to strike the film’s melodramatic notes in precisely the right way, they unfortunately can’t save the script from being extremely predictable.
The characters move and react exactly how one would expect them to. The plot demonstrates twists because it must and not because it is surprising. In fact there are points at which the film even seems to subscribe to the Saw franchise’s theory of horror and replaces more conceptual fear with blood or violence. In short Crimson Peak seems to be lacking one of the key components of horror for a film meant to be frightening — surprise.
Why then does this film work? What elevates it from being simply another cheap Halloween-time cash-in?
The answer is in short the film’s world and atmosphere. Del Toro is perhaps best known for his ability to create worlds and craft atmospheres better than almost any other director on the market. His work in Crimson Peak is no exception. Every set, every costume and every prop is created and placed with such care as to evoke scenes of equal parts beauty and terror.
The film is set in the early 1900s and manages perfectly to evoke a sense of the Gothic at nearly every opportunity. Oftentimes it feels as though the world could have been ripped straight from the pages of Wuthering Heights with the same unnerving darkness lurking in the background.
While the typical horror-tropes of bloody water, secluded snow-crusted castles and eerie, ghostly fogs may do nothing on their own to bring anything new to the table, these elements do evoke precisely the effect that they need to of the world’s turning on the protagonist.
As the sense of dread mounts and as solutions to the film’s mysteries become clearer and clearer, the film assaults both Edith and the audience with an ever-mounting sense of tension and ever-increasing number of visual horrors.
(A warning to the squeamish: The film can get rather graphic at times as mentioned earlier. While certainly nothing unexpected in a genre like this it is still something to be kept in mind when deciding if the film is worth seeing.)
Of course what would a Gothic horror be without a dash of romance? Again while certainly not exploring any uncharted territory, del Toro was absolutely on-point in his casting of Hiddleston as Thomas Sharpe. Thomas’s character really acts as the linchpin serving to bridge the gap between a lovely real world and the mortifying insanity that lurks in the shadows of this whole experience. This role needs someone capable of embodying both aspects of this world at once and, in the hands of a lesser actor, the film could have collapsed under its own melodrama.
Luckily Hiddleston, already known for his charisma, charm and wit, pulls out all the stops to give an absolutely stellar performance that keeps the film both intriguing and mysterious enough to keep audiences engaged from beginning to end.
Despite not being a genre-defying horror-revolution, Crimson Peak does its job and does its job well: It creates a visually striking world that is equally appealing and terrifying and walks its audience through it. Its relatively weak and predictable plot is counterbalanced by a visual flair most films this season find themselves sorely lacking.
The excellent performances from its small cast (particularly from Hiddleston) make this film far more worth-watching than most on the market at this moment. While Crimson Peak may not be winning any awards for innovation, simply seeing this world in motion and growing more and more unnerved as the atmosphere mounts is well worth the price of admission.
Overall Rating: 7/10