Guillermo Del Toro’s atmospheric horror movies usually exhibit an emotionally deep fascination with the supernatural. The director’s ghosts, while frightening in appearance, often don’t actually wish ill on the innocent people they haunt. Instead, they tend to be spectral echoes with unfinished business, who seek revenge and try to warn those still in harm’s way.
While actual discussions of God and religion don’t come into play much in Del Toro’s work, it’s still possible to find this approach deeply spiritual. In each of the worlds he creates, the audience is asked to take the supernatural world as a given — one that exists right alongside our own, with thin barriers that frequently give us brief views (both sublime and terrifying) into the other side. Those brief views throw our own world into sharp relief, showing us the beautiful and ugly realities of real life.
This same approach colors much of gothic literature — a genre that resonates strongly with Del Toro, particularly in his latest entry, the gorgeous, spine-tingling Crimson Peak. It’s a film riddled with characters whose lives are marked by ghosts, both real and emotional. Crimson Peak is not a perfect film, but it does many things well, including the patina of human tragedy it paints on top of its creaking floors.
Crimson Peak’s heroine is Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman who receives a ghostly warning as a child that comes to pass when, as an adult, she encounters Thomas (Tom Hiddleston), a handsome Englishman whose sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is even more mysterious than he. Edith marries Thomas, who brings her back to live with him and Lucille at the family’s exquisitely decrepit home, Allerdale Hall. There, Edith’s sanity is pushed to the brink by the appearance of several terrifying blood-red apparitions, coupled with the gradual revelation of Thomas and Lucille’s dark pasts.
Del Toro has always had an eye for dark beauty, and Crimson Peak features some of his most sumptuous eye-candy. The costumes are gorgeous — Wasikowska’s dresses are so plush you can practically feel the velvet. Allerdale Hall, on the other hand, is a rotting, barely-habitable wreck. But with its deep colors and fascinating nooks and crannies, the film makes a compelling argument for wanting to live there anyway.
The performances add an extra layer of atmosphere. Wasikowska’s Edith is a smart woman whose sheltered life makes her appear fragile, but masks inner reserves of strength. Hiddleston makes a great “tragically misunderstood” romantic figure. Chastain’s Lucille is the standout of the bunch, however, in a juicy portrayal with just the right amount of restraint.
That’s not to say that Crimson Peak is without its flaws. There are plot points that don’t bear up to much scrutiny, and some parts of the story can be easily guessed early on. However, even taking this into consideration, its good parts are more than just skin-deep. It’s a film that explores the effect that haunting has on us — both in the sense of things that go “boo,” and in the sense that the emotional consequences of our most desperate actions tend to hang around.