"Beware of Crimson Peak," an eerie voice warns Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska). Thankfully, audiences need not heed the same warning. The gothic offering that shares its name with a crumbling mansion atop clay-filled heights is a dark delight that haunts with its unsettling mood and enchants with exquisite imagery.
Coming from the mind of Guillermo del Toro, that shouldn't be surprising. In the writer/director's ninth and latest feature, as co-written with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's Matthew Robbins, he dives further into all things scary and sublimely staged than he perhaps has before — and that's with the likes of vampire fare Cronos, ghost tale The Devil's Backbone and spellbinding fantasy Pan's Labyrinth on his resume.
His protagonist, Edith, finds her way to the titular locale courtesy of tragedy and romance. In late 19th-century New York, British baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) sweeps the aspiring author off her feet, much to the disapproval of her wealthy industrialist father, Carter (Jim Beaver). Kindly childhood pal, the smitten Dr Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), also looks on in dismay, with neither the charming Thomas nor his terse sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) warmly welcomed. When Edith accompanies the siblings to their dilapidated home, only to be met by sinister happenings, their secrets start to be revealed.
Crimson Peak is the type of slow-building, richly evocative effort that feels torn from the pages of literature, as it is designed to. That the dialogue namechecks Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Arthur Conan Doyle gives a firm indication of the balance of elements del Toro aims for, combining romance, horror and mystery. Make no mistake, though, the movie is more than just the sum of his influences. From the atmospheric unease to the heaving themes of love and loss to the overt sensation of yearning, there's never any doubt that is del Toro's film through and through.
He inspires an unrelenting sense of tension that bursts forward whenever something untoward graces the feature's frames, but never subsides even in quieter moments. He also conjures the type of devastating detail that demands to be seen on a big screen. Whether transitioning between scenes with iris wipes, looking down on snowy ground laced with scarlet footsteps, watching colour-coded ghostly entities peer around corners or enjoying a fast-paced waltz with a flickering candle in hand, the movie is a sight to behold.
With Crimson Peak such an effective exercise in tone, texture and aesthetics, it certainly proves a relief that the story does more simply justify its look and feel, and that the cast do more than wander through sumptuous surroundings. The deep red hue of the film's name references both the blood that flies freely as well as the focus on the luminous Wasikowska and the enjoyably unnerving Chastain, resulting in an effort where jump scares are modest, surprises few and the characters' inner workings made apparent from the outset, yet emotions run as deep as narrative intrigue, and attention never wavers.
Pacific Rim this ain't. Del Toro is at home once again making sensually charged, period-set, haunted house fare. Intimate and intricate in the best possible ways, Crimson Peak is something sumptuous, spooky and gorgeously gothic to savour — as is superbly complex leading man Hiddleston, who almost anyone would follow into such creepy surroundings.