Guillermo del Toro is one of the most illustrative directors of our time. He has vines of visions wrapping around inside his head (a contained version of which can be found in his real-life house that's filled with skulls and creepy trinkets), so give the man a movie, and his fairy tale imagery unravels in gorgeous scenes. This is, after all, the same man who invited us into the terrifying and magical world of Pan's Labyrinth. There was never any doubt Crimson Peak would be aesthetically lush.
So many horror movies lately have tried to take unconventional routes that it actually feels refreshing to see a rather straight-forward, otherwise outdated style of the standard haunted house horror. Guillermo del Toro refuses to call this a horror movie, but there are enough horrifying scenes that would rightly put it under the genre. He prefers the term gothic romance instead, and unsurprisingly, the romances here are twisted and unsettling.
Del Toro's production design is certainly one of Crimson Peak's biggest stars, but it's also supported by a stellar cast of actors, too. The made-for-gothic-romance Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing, who nails the just-seen-a-ghost thing quite perfectly. Edith is an aspiring writer—a self-proclaimed Mary Shelley type—who falls in love with a dashing Brit named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). After the brutal murder of her father (an incident that gets weirdly glossed over, by both del Toro and law enforcement agencies), Edith marries and runs off with Thomas to his creepy-ass mansion, Allerdale Hall a.k.a. Crimson Peak, where they must live out their married days with his overbearing sister, Lucille, played by the outstanding Jessica Chastain. Lucille is a goddamn queen, but more on that later.
Crimson Peak is littered with imagery. The chilling house is literally cold (though not as cold as Chastain), thanks to a casual hole in the roof that lets leaves and snow fall through. When Edith tries to take a bath, the faucet pours out blood-red water—but oh, don't worry, it's just the red clay in the pipes that's making it look like that. Don't worry, darling, nothing weird is going on here, nothing weird at all. *Shifty eyes* The house has all the creaks and squeaks of your typical haunted house. Unfortunately, there's not much beyond that. When the ghosts come out to play, that's when Crimson Peak reaches its silliest, making the atmospheric setting look more like a gaudy Disneyland version of a haunted mansion. If del Toro wanted to avoid "horror" as a genre, then he successfully used his ghosts as weapons of comic relief. With the costumes and set already so loud, these CGI ghosts are quite distracting and surprisingly unnecessary, whereas Crimson Peak would have been better served with subtle terrors offset by the shocking bouts of ultraviolence it throws at the audience.
With such elaborate vision, del Toro forgets to be innovative with the actual story, which he co-wrote with Matthew Robbins. The twists are soooo predictable, but it's nothing to be too mad about; the vicious fight scenes are plenty delectable. Actually, its the unexpected violence that's more shocking than the plot twists, thanks to del Toro's affinity for face-stabbing (that scene from Pan's Labyrinth still haunts me). The final fight, with scarlet blood over pure, white snow and Chastain snarling like a rabid animal, is the best part of the movie. Crimson Peak leaves men helplessly bleeding out, letting the women do all the work. Edith proves herself as more than just a sheep-like bride in these final minutes, determined, with knife in hand, while her old friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam), a vaguely handsome, vest-wearing physicist, is mostly dead weight.
Naturally, Chastain's on-screen presence is a highlight. She serves up so many evil sister-in-law faces, thus obviously stealing all the thunder. When she menacingly scrapes a spoon against a bowl while feeding Edith, it feels impossibly long and uncomfortable. She throws down pots in lavish tantrums and then maniacally gathers her spilled food with her bare hands. Chastain literally cuts a bitch, which is honestly all I need to enjoy a movie.
What del Toro had in mind when shooting Crimson Peak was probably a stylish gothic period piece in the same acclaimed lane as Pan's Labyrinth. Unfortunately, Crimson Peak fails to work on that level. Not that it doesn't have anything to offer—with his two female leads running around in extravagant nightgowns, thirsty for each other's blood, Crimson is immensely entertaining. You might even be clapping and cheering on your feet at the end. Plus with Halloween just around the corner, at least it makes for good goofy, stab-happy fun.