As Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” begins, its main character claims the film isn’t a story about ghosts but has ghosts in it. From the start, audiences will need to remove their expectations of a modern, jump-scare horror film. Instead of frightening with cheap scares, del Toro keeps audiences entertained by crafting an eerie atmosphere that complements the central Gothic romance.
The film follows an aspiring horror novelist, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who is told from an early age by her mother’s ghost to “stay away from Crimson Peak.” This mystery of what Crimson Peak is and how it relates to Edith propels the story forward.
Once Edith grows up, she is introduced to the dashingly handsome Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his cold sister, Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). Edith is instantly smitten with Thomas. Along with developing their romance, Thomas is trying to sell a valuable red clay to Edith’s father. After some short scenes of Edith and Thomas falling in love and the mysterious death of her father, Edith and Thomas marry and head off to the English estate where Thomas and Lucille live.
Once the film makes it to the Sharpe mansion, del Toro allows the mystery, the romance and the scenes of grotesque imagery to go mad. The production design of the mansion becomes the most important aspect of the film. In typical fashion, del Toro pays attention to every detail in the house. From the rotting roof where snow and leaves fall to the red clay that creeps up through the ground leaving red footprints in the snow, the production design is an absolute marvel. The costumes are equally impressive in their ability to distinguish characters — each with a distinctive color scheme that represents his or her emotional state. Del Toro and his production team have put such care into the design that the story almost becomes secondary.
When considering the cinematography, production design, makeup, costumes and sound, it’s hard to say “Crimson Peak” is the best use of all these aspects together for del Toro. The filmmaker has created one of the best sensory experiences in film this year.
In a later scene, when two characters get into a bloody fight, a gray blizzard washes over the screen. Through this stormy lens, the characters are visible only by the contrasting colors of their clothes, the blood running down their bodies and the red clay seeping through the snow underneath their feet. This sequence alone is an example of why “Crimson Peak” will surely be nominated for best production design and costume Academy Awards at the beginning of next year.
Yet, del Toro can get so caught up in his designs that the characters take a backseat from time to time. Instead of developing a believable romance between Edith and Thomas, del Toro allows the colors and production design to create the atmosphere. For example, the red clay seems to be red only for creating a bloody liquid that comes through the house and pierces the snow. The color doesn’t appear to be important other than for creating an ominous look.
Even with all of that known, del Toro keeps his audience entertained. While he does spend a lot of time setting up the layout of the house, he allows the central mystery of the film to keep moving the story along. Why is Edith still haunted by ghosts? Why does Lucille seem jealous of Thomas and Edith’s relationship? What is Crimson Peak, and how does it relate to the story? Because of the Gothic design and melodramatic emotions, del Toro allows everything and everyone to act crazier than normal, allowing the film to move at its own enjoyably weird pace.
With so many artificial design choices, the film won’t be for everyone. It’s not a traditional horror film, and it’s not a successful romance. But the sheer craft achievement of the film can’t be ignored, and most of all, it is entertaining throughout. “Crimson Peak” is ultimately a beautiful and sometimes nightmarish creation that successfully melds together all formal aspects of film into one unforgettable experience.
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