Film Review: Crimson Peak (MA15+, USA, 2015)

The trailers released for Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak make the film look like a horror-infused haunted house type film. In actual fact it’s not; well not entirely anyway, since Del Toro has instead crafted a gothic romance film that harkens back to story-telling styles of yester-year – it just so happens to be set in a haunted house.

When Edith Cushing was a young girl her mother died due to black cholera, devastated the young girl finds herself on the receiving end of a ghostly visitation with a foreshadowing warning her to “Beware Crimson Peak”. Some ten years later Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a spirited young woman who is determined to be a published author, and being courted by her childhood friend, eligible and intelligent doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). Edith however is won over by a mysterious stranger Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who along with his eccentric sister Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) capture her attention and intrigue. After the tragic and somewhat suspicious death of her father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) Edith leaves America to go live with her new husband Thomas and her now sister-in-law Lucille in their enormous but dilapidated mansion Allendale House in England. But not everything is as it seems, and Edith must face the ghosts of her past and those of Allendale House to unlock its secrets and discover the horrifying truth about the Sharpe siblings.

Our three leads each bring unique traits and portrayals to our characters. Mia Wasikowska as Edith, our pure and innocent young lady but also wide-eyed and curious about the supernatural. She refuses to be pigeon-holed as dainty and when likened to that of Jane Austen she retorts she’d rather be Mary Shelley. Almost literally waltzing into her life is Tom Hiddleston’s Sir Thomas Sharpe who flits between warm and charming to cold and cunning. But there is a very distinct moment in the film where you see him want to achieve redemption, it’s a tiny expression but Hiddleston’s angular face and doe eyes reveal it so well. But truly it’s Jessica Chastain’s Lady Lucille Sharpe’s constant resting bitch face, aloofness and just all-round weirdness that gives us this feeling of uneasiness about her and it’s well justified. Particularly in the latter half of the film when she gets to unleash a new level of crazy on poor Edith. If these characters were played by other less capable actors, this film would have surely been laughable to watch. Jim Beaver who’s a well known character actor often lumped into the gruff category gets to play something a bit more respectable and a man who clearl loves and protects his daughter. Hunnam is probably under-used and feels a little one-dimensional but he adds some well dressed eye candy.

Del Toro and his co-writer Matthew Robbins (Mimic) have crafted a story that doesn’t really scream as unique or complex. It’s less of a haunted house film and more of a mysterious dark fairy-tale as Edith attempts to uncover the the truth about the Sharpes before falling victim to them. Though the twist or reveal near the end wasn’t entirely shocking or surprising it still makes you recoil a little in disgust and horror. Del Toro has never been one to shy away from graphic brutally gory moments but here it’s only at the start of the second act & then again during the final act. The beginning of the film does well to set its foundations as a journey and coming of age film, but it carefully leaves room for the tension & mystery to build right through to the conclusion.

But what really is the showstopper here is the visual effects and all the production design that give a frightening realism to all the affairs going on. The special effects are unsettling & visually grotesque but also beautiful and wonderfully imagined and realised. The ghosts who resemble walking skeletons dripping in the blood red wispy willowy clay that they were buried in look like tormented souls. Allerdale Hall is very Victorian gothic and has echoes of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands as the snow falls through the gaping hole in the roof. It’s made to look and sound like a living breathing bleeding entity, with its heaving creaking groans as the wind batters it and travels through chimneys, or the non-stop red blood-like ooze that drip down the walls. It’s nicknamed Crimson Peak because of the iron rich clay it sits upon causing it to stain the ground (or more accurately everything around it) red. THere’s a distinct shift of tone from the bright & warm colours of USA to the cold shades of grey white black to England. Specific colours are emphasised especially the red of the clay & it purposefully resembles the ooze of blood. Then of course there’s the sumptuous and fabulous costumes and how they vary and contrast between characters. Del Toro is not one for allowing a single bit of detail go unnoticed.

The trailer for Crimson Peak was a little misleading going into the film, it definitely feels more like a Victorian-era-gothic-romance with some horror and fantasy elements thrown in. It’s never really explained how or why only Edith can see the ghosts, only that they are there to guide or warn her. But aside from these niggles it’s the fact that Del Toro can once again bring something so visually stunning and imagined to the big screen that looks so utterly captivating.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 119 minutes

Crimson Peak is now screening in Australian cinemas