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I’ve have good news and bad news: The bad news is that “Crimson Peak” isn’t the film you’d expect based on those sleek and scary trailers. The good news is it’s still awesome.
Co-written by Matthew Robbins and director Guillermo del Toro, “Crimson Peak” centers on Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an outspoken American heiress who aspires to be an author. Rather than the love stories expected of her sex, Cushing is attracted to tales of things that go bump in the night. When she crosses paths with the dashing but mysterious baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), she gets a bit of both. After a hasty wedding, the pair moves to his tattered country estate, nicknamed Crimson Peak for the way its red clay stains snow a ghastly hue in the winter. There, Edith not only faces off with Thomas’ sneering sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), but also confronts the skeleton’s found in the rotting closets of this fallen family.
First and foremost, “Crimson Peak” is gorgeous. Del Toro paints his dark tale in vivid colors, from the luscious costumes that bedeck Waskikowska in radiant yellows and Chastain in ominous blood red, to the lighting that splashes orange and teal across the home’s moldering walls. Even in its decay, the house is breathtaking, sure to inspire artists and filmmakers for generations. And del Toro even brings this bold use of color into the film’s ghosts and ghouls. The practiced and perfectly chilling physicality of creature-feature icon Doug Jones is blended with slick CGI and del Toro’s distinctive aesthetic to create specters spun from ink, blood, smoke and muck. Whether they’re crawling up through the floor, hovering high above, or crawling into Edith’s bed, they are downright terrifying, aided by a sound design/score that envelopes the viewer like a rolling fog, then punctuates horror with a violent strike of a violin.
But this is all something you expected from the trailers, right? Gothic horror drenched in blood and spiced up with the hysteria-inducing sex appeal of Hiddleston. But that’s not all “Crimson Peak” has to offer.
We’re introduced to Edith rattled, eyes wide with fright, white gown splattered with blood from her torn cheek, telling us in voiceover, “Ghosts are real.” But moments later, we flash back to her life before the Sharpes, and it’s something out of a Jane Austen novel. Edith is bubbly, bright and ambitious, traits undervalued in the marriage market of the upper crust of Buffalo, New York. But despite her apparent oddness, she’s soon sought after by the smoldering bachelor from abroad who has the local girls going gaga. Edith isn’t interested in the frivolity of balls or in husband-hunting. Yet she can’t deny her attraction to Thomas, with his sad eyes and earnest passion for invention. All this is much to the chagrin of Edith’s besotted childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), and of course Thomas’s snooty sister. Its Austen inspirations is something the film acknowledges in a barb at Edith’s expense. But her rejoinder sites the film’s other major inspiration: Mary Shelley.
Edith’s lively tale of high society descends into the malevolent mysteries of Crimson Peak, playing well to del Toro’s whimsy, love of the macabre, and awe-striking visual storytelling. The house itself is a character, speaking with sputters of blood-red mud, the buzz of butterfly-eating black moths, trails of encroaching black mold, and howls of cruel, cold wind that throws snow about the interior with disdain. Watching these two worlds elegantly mingle, I could imagine del Toro’s pitch meeting: “Crimson Peak” is Jane Austen meets Mary Shelley, and then they walk into “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain are encouraged to indulge in an acting style that’s a bit broad by today’s standards, but true to the Gothic horror roots from which “Crimson Peak” springs. Some could see their performances as campy, especially when the narrative barrels into a finale that is as explosive with emotion and gruesome reveals as it is blood and in-your-face violence. But for me, all these grand acting choices fit well into del Toro’s swell of romance and ruin. Chastain’s is a diva role that will some day be admired on a par with Bette Davis’ in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Wasikowska brings a wit, warmth and strength to Edith that makes her a fascinating Final Girl. And Hiddleston delivers a wounded lover performance that is sure to set hearts and loins aflame.
As for the supporting cast, Burn Gorman relishes in chewing the scenery as a bearded detective. Leslie Hope succinctly sums up the pretentions of the upper class with a cutting monologue. Jim Beaver grounds Edith’s world with a well-worn portrayal of her protective but ever-loving papa. And Hunnam is here too. He’s not bad, but I’m apparently immune to whatever charm del Toro thinks this blandsome ingendude possesses.
All in all, “Crimson Peak” is outstanding. Its romance is ardent yet deliciously twisted. Its horror is pulse-pounding, the kind that will make you want to look away, but it is so beautifully realized you wouldn’t dare. For those asking for something original and daring, your prayers have been answered: “Crimson Peak” is one of the most original and exhilarating horror films of the last decade.
“Crimson Peak” opens Friday nationwide.