Crimson Peak

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Crimson Peak

Rated: R / Runtime: 1h 59m

One of the first things Crimson Peak does, other than establish that ghosts are real and very present in this story, is namecheck Mary Shelley. Leave your preconceptions at the door, it says, and prepare to embrace the heightened Gothic ghost story in this film’s delightfully romantic bloody waltz.

Director/Writer Guillermo del Toro has always had a penchant for macabre visual flair, but his films have never felt like traditional horror. And, to be fair, this movie may not be the horror many contemporary viewers expect. This is no found-footage, shaky webcam, haunted doll shlock. This is the hyper-crafted, meticulous, grand creepiness of films like The Shining or The Exorcist.

Drawing from Juan López Moctezuma’s 1970s Mexican horror – the bloody bathtubs of Alucarda and the flowing petticoats of The Mansion of Madness – del Toro weaves his influences together with the visual flair we’ve grown to expect. His smoky, gory wraiths have a creepy, messy gravitas lost with the invisible jump-scare machines found in other films. These aren’t special effects, they’re characters that melt before your eyes. They drip and scream, writhing with an anguishing psychic pain that immediately tempers our fear with sympathy.

These horrors come filtered through the eyes of Mia Wasikowska’s aspiring writer, Edith Cushing. Edith quickly sets herself apart from her catty socialite contemporaries with her drive to publish her horror manuscript, masking her handwriting to disguise her gender. This leads to her chance encounter with dark, mysterious baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston in one of his finest performances). He and his sister (the brilliantly unhinged Jessica Chastain) eventually lure Edith back to their mountaintop manor where the blood-red clay seeps and stains the landscape like Lady MacBeth’s unwashable hands.

Something, you may ascertain at this point, is not right about this whole situation.

The escalating anxiety and tension dovetails with Edith’s burgeoning curiosity and Sir Thomas’s growing uncertainty. Wasikowska coat’s Edith’s tough core with a dainty, prim padding, much like the fluffy shoulders on her gowns. That the character is never written as a pushover, but as a gaslit mark slowly uncovering the depth of her own deceit, does wonders for our affections for her. She’s as tough as any horror protagonist – an Ellen Ripley in lace.

Hiddleston secretes so much oily charm that it feels like you should wipe him off with a cloth. His darkness, somehow linked to his past, glints sharply below the surface of his expertly crafted, Victorian pickup artist veneer. Chastain’s wild-eyed desperation makes me want her to stick with horror films: she’s just so riveting. She captures you with the smallest movements, holding you hostage to squirm in her unbearable yet inescapable presence. Later in the film she becomes a beautiful whirling nightmare, as terrifying as any creature concocted in del Toro’s imagination.

Unfortunately, the miscast Charlie Hunnam seems out of his depth surrounded by such wonderful performances, his accent and charm wavering on the side of high school Shakespeare.

That aside, the film’s atmosphere makes up for any weak spots. More romance than horror, no jump scares or tongue-in-cheek sex romps, Crimson Peak builds on the feeling that something is wrong. It eats at you, an atrophying cholera slowly burning away at any feelings of comfort or safety.

Aside from the excellently perverse and intelligent script, the visual storytelling demands your attention. Edith’s investigations into the mysteries of the Peak contain several visual setpieces – a trunk and keyring, tea trays and wax phonograph cylinders – that resonate with meaning even as they serve as key plot devices. The production design of these items, the mansion, and the rest of the film perfectly captures the heightened decorative masquerade disguising the brutal truths beneath the surface.

Cyclical violence and manipulative relationships lurk as thematic horrors, embracing the Gothic adoration of sexual cynicism with clever commentary. Love, while not abandoned or scorned, floats out of reach, dangerous but worth reaching for. The inevitability of most fairy tales, in which being warned of danger often lead to being embroiled in it, culminates in the full-circle finale. After a cathartic chase and showdown that will go down as one of the most heart-pounding, gorgeously-shot, and passion-fueled horror endings in modern memory, the audience releases their collectively held breath not with a sigh, but a cheer.

Beautiful and horrible, Crimson Peak has the discordant panache and meaty substance to be an instant horror classic and perennial Halloween favorite.

Jacob Oller is an Oklahoma City film critic and writer. Find more of his work at or

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