Marketing can make or break a movie, and “Crimson Peak,” Guillermo del Toro’s newest film, is in serious danger. The previews and pretty much every other bit of marketing make it out to be a horror movie, but it’s a classic Gothic romance. Like “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre,” it brings us a heroine who is drawn by love into the web of a strange and horrifying mystery. People expecting a standard gory, violent modern horror flick are likely to be disappointed, but folks who adore creepy atmosphere, gorgeous and decaying upper-class dwellings, and Tom Hiddleston are in for a treat.
Our heroine, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), is an aspiring novelist whose life has been marred by tragedy. The first time she saw a ghost was after her mother died when she was ten, and when she marries Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a down-on-his-luck baronet, she finds herself in a thoroughly creepy house with a number of very, very angry ghosts.
Edith’s father took an instant dislike to Sharpe, and it’s not hard to see why as the story progresses. He and his mysterious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) are full of secrets, and while there’s a perfectly good explanation for why their house appears to have blood dripping down the walls and oozing up between the floorboards, the overall atmosphere is one of impending doom.
Fans of Guillermo del Toro know that he is a master of telling a creepy tale that may not be what you expect, and “Crimson Peak” is definitely in that vein. Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” horrible supernatural things abound, but the real monsters here are our fellow humans. Which isn’t to say that the ghosts aren’t scary – they all differ somewhat in appearance, but all of them bear the marks of their deaths and subsequent decomposition, and translucent vapor rises from them like incense smoke. Doug Jones did the motion capture work for two of the ghosts, and it shows in their unearthly but somehow creepily real movements. Jones has been working with del Toro for a long time, and it’s easy to see why.
The performances are all solid, but Hiddleston is the only one given a challenging part to play. Lucille is a fairly standard mysterious/wicked sister figure and Edith is our plucky but naïve heroine, but Thomas is a deeply conflicted person operating from multiple and opposing motivations. As the film takes us closer and closer to revealing the secrets of the Sharpe family home, his internal conflict becomes more and more apparent. Hiddleston makes a character who could easily have turned into a stereotype a believable human being.
It’s tricky to advise people on whether “Crimson Peak” is right for them if they don’t like horror movies. It may not be a standard hack-and-slash torture porn flick, but it does have some distressing visuals. The ghosts look very much like partially-decomposed bodies, and there are a few jump-scares that are legitimately freaky rather than of the hackneyed “oh, the cat! Ha! Oh no, the actual monster!” variety. The best litmus test is probably whether you enjoyed “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “The Devil’s Backbone.”
This is not a movie for everyone, but the people who are its target audience will be very, very pleased with it.