Crimson Peak is not a horror movie. You may not be aware of that due to the marketing of the film. In a broad sense it's not inaccurate, but Crimson Peak is more precisely a gothic romance, a macabre love story with a supernatural setting. In fact, the movie tells us this early on through the main character, a writer named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska). “It's not a ghost story. It's a story with ghosts in it,” she says, to us. This is an important distinction.
Edith is passionate about her work, fueled by the gender equalities of the time (turn of the 20th century). She models herself after Mary Shelley, and feels she has no need or room in her life for romance, to the dismay of both her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), and the totally-out-of-place Charlie Hunnam as Dr. Alan McMichael, who is in love with her. Carter wants her little girl to be happy, and part of that is trying to hook her up with Dr. Hunnam.
But then enters Tom Hiddleston.
Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) is hard not to fall for as he pours on the melancholy charm. Him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) hit the town (Buffalo town, in fact), and Thomas strikes something in Edith she never knew she had. Not only does Thomas take an interest in Edith's writing, he is in town seeking investment in a project, and when he's rejected, Edith sees a kinship with her own story being rejected for not including a love story. Needless to say, Thomas and Edith hook up against Mr. Cushing's wishes, and set off with Lucille to far off Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe's mansion, which has seen better days. In fact a large part of the roof doesn't exist, letting in a constant, beautiful fall of snow to contrast the red clay seeping up from the Earth, which is why the locals have deemed Allerdale Hall the titular Crimson Peak.
“But Juese, where are the ghosts?” Everywhere, really. Edith sees a ghost at the beginning of the movie, and they makes themselves known when necessary. These ghosts are set dressings, and the lack of explanations makes them that much more interesting. Yes, a part of you will want much more time with them, and that's just the way it is. While not a horror movie, Crimson Peak is of course still spooky. Guillermo Del Toro is one of my favorite grown-up little kids, who will always revel in the icky and gross and scary things little kids love, even in an adult romantic tale.
The story itself is pretty predictable. Once we're in Allerdale Hall, you probably know where the movie is going. However, there's much more to love here. Namely, the movie is just stunning visually top to bottom. Del Toro opted for cinematographer Dan Lausten (Brotherhood of the Wolf, Silent Hill) rather than his usual, Guillermo Navarro (who directed some of the best episodes of Hannibal). This might be the biggest reason Crimson Peak feels different than other Del Toro movies, and not in a bad way. Everything is so lush and decadent, from the camera to the costumes, the sets and color choices and swirling string sections. It really sucks you into the screen, and makes you feel guilty like eating a large dessert.
There are some excellent performances, namely in the Sharpe siblings. Hiddleston is more complex than just being an object of affection for Edith, and the real mystery of Crimson Peak is whether Thomas cares as much for Edith as she does for him. I'd say my favorite work was done by Jessica Chastain, who gets to be overtly menacing, tip-toeing along the cackling villain wire while never falling prey to over-dramatics. Between this and The Martian, she is forever tied to my October 2015. Also putting in a commendable performance is Jim Beaver (Edith's father) who anchors the time period perfectly. As I hinted at earlier, Charlie Hunnam sticks out in this era like a sore thumb, even though I wouldn't categorize his acting as bad per say. I'm just glad he wasn't in a ton of the movie. As for Mia Wasikowska, I think Edith's strengths come more from the script than the performance, but she does have a certain drive and curiosity that kept me interested. I would have liked more sparks between her and Hiddleston though, I felt like he carried that relationship. Also there's a welcomed small role for another Pacific Rim alum, Burn Gorman, as a private investigator who looks remarkably like a young Willem Dafoe.
Crimson Peak is more comparable to Del Toro's Spanish-language films such as Pan's Labyrinth and Devil's Backbone, mostly because these films feel more personal than his Hollywood blockbusters (although movies like Hellboy are 100% Del Toro.) Crimson Peak isn't nearly as mean as the aforementioned movies (nor as mean to children!), and didn't give me the same punch to the gut I was expecting. But again, Crimson Peak isn't that type of movie. It's much more of a stylized classic, a Bava-colored Hammer horror for those nerds that get that. A throwback in the most elegant meaning.
Crimson Peak is a sweeping dance, swallowing you in fanciful movements as vibrant colors dazzle your eyes and heart, even if those colors are blood-copper reds and dark, moldy greens, even if the ballroom is full of specters dancing in unison around you, not nearly as dangerous as your partner held close, who occasionally steps on your feet.