A word of caution: don’t watch the “Crimson Peak” trailer. And don’t even dare glance at its promotional posters, because, as its heroine corrects us, “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts in it.” The ghastly marketing, promising a minefield of gore and stock horror at every turn, deters from the film’s legitimate triumph that under Guillermo Del Toro’s (“Pacific Rim”) operatic vision, a well-trodden tale of Gothic romance creaks back to life. And that, my friends, is why the focus should be on “Crimson Peak” — the film, and the film only.
It’s high society New York at the turn of the century, and the elegant dresses, coiffed hair and well-ironed businessmen are all bathed in a sumptuous gold glow. The aristocratic Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, “The Avengers”) sweeps in from across the pond and captures the heart of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, “The Kids Are All Right”), the daughter of a wealthy, self-made industrialist. Yet Edith, a strong-willed girl writing novels about ghosts, is no stranger to darkness. Since her youth, her mother’s ghost has visited her — a spidery, slithery figure with a terrifyingly raspy voice, designed with slick style rather than camp — and warned to beware Crimson Peak. Viewers notice what Edith does not: Even as her lips meet her charming suitor’s for the first time, the lighting is split between the two, gold on her and a passionately burning crimson on him. When a tragic murder leaves her father dead, she’s whisked away to eerie Allerdale Hall, home to Sharpe and his sister (Jessica Chastain, “Interstellar”), where past spirits come back and the resplendent color palette fades cold and bleak as Edith unearths the old home’s secrets.
Wasikowska and Hiddleston are absolutely bewitching together, the ingénue and her dark prince taking on a modern sensibility when reimagined with Wasikowska’s intelligent gaze and Hiddleston’s growing introspection. With her immaculate poise, Chastain, too, is seductively sinister. She takes on a cruel form of beauty, her face almost always unreadable but simmering with expertly bottled rage. The three leads, excellent individually, play off each other’s emotions well, and together, they stitch together a past where love, deceit, sacrifice and shame blaze as intensely as the red clay marking everything in Allerdale Hall ominously.
The performances, lavish costumes, stark contrast in set design between Edith’s old and new homes intertwine marvelously with Del Toro’s always deft handling of characters’ emotional ecstasy. Though the plot is thin and predictable, the immersive Gothic atmosphere pays homage to horror’s classics. Only in the film’s excessively gory climax does the meticulously constructed build-up falter and devolve into camp. A film whose heroine refuses to pander to popular tastes in her fiction for the sake of mass appeal should follow suit. While there are some legitimately terrifying scenes that do venture into the realm of modern horror, this denouement felt thrown in just to fit the film into a genre that it’s not.
With temperatures dropping, skies darkening, and leaves browning to decay, it might be to escape the midterm scuffle into the arms of a charming English gentleman with a questionable past, because despite the many warnings to “beware Crimson Peak,” its pull is far too seductive to ignore.