Set in a castle surrounded by mist, Crimson Peak harkens back to Dracula, Frankenstein and other Universal Pictures horror movies of the '30s and '40s. I obsessed over those films when I was a kid, seduced by each one's elegantly moody atmosphere and sumptuous sets. Now, young audiences are accustomed to grittier, more crudely made horror films — torture porn and found-footage. Crimson Peak is a lavish, refreshingly old-fashioned production. With this refined film, director Guillermo Del Toro redeems himself from that loud robot mess, Pacific Rim.
The film revolves around Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the daughter of a self-made industrialist. Her daydreams of writing gothic novels are interrupted when a handsome aristocrat named Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) breezes into her father's business. He hopes Mr. Cushing (Jim Beaver) will invest in his clay mining invention. Thomas soon warms up to Edith after failing to impress her father.
They quickly fall in love, but Thomas' intentions seem less than pure when his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) steps into the picture. She doesn't offer Edith a very warm welcome when she moves into the cold castle where Thomas and Lucille were raised. These siblings are clearly up to no good — a little too clearly. It grows a bit tiresome watching Edith stumble around in a panic after we see early on that Thomas and Lucille obviously have sinister plans in store for her. But the film's eerie setting will certainly keep you engaged.
A big smile spread across my face when the creaky floorboards of the castle gushed with bright red blood. (It's actually the "crimson clay" beneath the Sharpe estate, but whatever.) This scarlet soil has strong symbolic power. It recalls all the blood shed to build a lasting foundation for the Sharpe family's success. Their haunted house is a character in and of itself.
Crimson Peak is more atmospheric than scary. Like those Universal Pictures horror films of yore, it romanticizes the macabre, evoking awe rather than repulsion. It's grotesque yet gorgeous.
The three lead actors are equally magnetic. Wasikowska breathes surprising depth into what is basically a damsel in distress role. And Chastain gives a commanding performance as the polar opposite — one of the most menacing characters you'll see on any screen this year. She and Hiddleston carry sorrow in their eyes, making their characters more than mere monsters.
The complexity of these performances is a credit to Del Toro. He holds horror in high regard, demanding a sophistication missing from many films in the genre. Crimson Peak has a delicate beauty. It's like a painting you have to look at from behind a velvet rope.
In the midst of the millionth Paranormal Activity movie and other found-footage spectacles, Crimson Peak will seem like a relic. It's a rare find — a graceful horror film.