“Crimson Peak” Movie Review

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     Visionary director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Hellboy”) weaves a surprisingly modern tale within a period setting that displays his trademark artistic and detailed style in “Crimson Peak”.  A horror thriller that seems to have already sewn up an Academy Award nomination for Art Direction and Set Decoration as the director has literally put on a clinic with his imagining of a world full of vibrant color mixed with sinister lighting and gorgeous set design.  One filmmaker of whom I could make a comparison is Tim Burton, specifically for his successful period horror offerings “Sweeney Todd” and “Sleepy Hollow”.  While both of those films had the allure of Johnny Depp starring in the lead role, del Toro’s film seems to employ a preference for surroundings instead of his characters.  It’s as if he has written the screenplay, along with Matthew Robbins, to welcome the actors into the world he has created.  As if it is his own personal play land.  It would be difficult to think of another filmmaker more supremely qualified to give us his take on the standard haunted house movie than del Toro and now that we have it, it’s time to revel in it a bit.

     The story behind “Crimson Peak” may seem a bit too drawn out, at face value, for the younger generation who has been conditioned to consume their horror films with present day stories that feature found footage and naughty teenagers making dumb decisions leading to their demise.  Though the proceedings take place in the late 1800s and are set in England, I think most will be surprised at how much resemblance the story has to your average adult love triangle drama.  del Toro’s story is full of lies and deceit between characters who are willing to kill in order to further their own professional lives.  The fact these characters find themselves in del Toro’s strange and twisted world, rather than a bland present day setting, allows for a significantly more creepy experience.  Though the film may not pack the kind of scares typically associated with a ghost story, it does have a certain intelligence about it that seems to go beyond what is expected and gives us something which instead feels original.

     Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, whom you will likely remember played Alice in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”) is a tortured young woman who endures frequent ghostly visits from her dead mother.  The opening scene is a masterwork in lighting and mood all by itself as we see a younger Edith experiencing the supernatural for the first time.  The combination of darkness with the yellows and purples that shine down the hallway from her room creates an immediate sense of dread and uncomfortableness.  The smokey black apparition seems to slither as much as it floats along the hallway, as Edith turns a away, closing her eyes, hoping it’s all just a dream.  As  the ghost of her mother hovers above her, a warning is uttered that she doesn’t understand, but she will in time.  Her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), is a well off financial mogul who is classically overprotective.  He becomes especially so when an Englishman who has requested a meeting to seek funding for a project takes an obvious liking to his daughter.

     As he did while playing Loki in the “Thor” films, Tom Hiddleston commands the screen and steals every scene he’s in as Thomas Sharpe.  Thomas has arrived in America with his sister, Lucille Sharpe (an equally as good Jessica Chastain), to secure an investment in a contraption he has created.  Carter instantly sees a man in Thomas who is undeserving of his business, but Edith finds herself mesmerized by his charms.  To put it simply, this guy has game.  He seems to turn a normally shy and reserved girl into someone now comfortable with performing the waltz in front of her family and peers.  A feat that does not go unnoticed by her father and a would be boyfriend named Alan (Charlie Hunnam), who by now know something is not right.  As many young people do; however, Edith chooses to listen to her heart and marries Thomas, which means moving to England and living in his home known as Allerdale Hall.

     At this point, the sets and costumes in “Crimson Peak” have mirrored or felt similar to any other period piece, but once the characters arrive at Allerdale Hall, not only do things begin to get weird, del Toro’s creative juices also begin to flow.  As in literally, since the house is said to be sitting on a mass of red clay and is slowly sinking.  We are told by Thomas there is also a nice effect in the snowy winters when the red clay and white snow combine to give the estate its alternate name, Crimson Peak.  The walls inside are painted a drab gray, but are contrasted nicely by the red clay that oozes from the floor and within the walls.  An opening in the roof of the entry way allows the elements inside, which means the interiors are covered with leaves in the fall and snow in the winter.  The last decoration was likely added decades ago, so it also has that lived in by your ancestors look which contributes mightily to the atmosphere when the sun goes down.  This is when those of the paranormal form begin to visit and warn Edith she is in evil surroundings.  She obviously loves Tom, but Lucille, who also lives in the home with them, may be a different matter.

     “Crimson Peak” succeeds in a way few films have in recent times.  By the third act, we know we are being treated to a story that may have, at first, seemed recycled, only to find through several well timed twists that not all is as it seemed.  Add that to a number of outstanding set pieces that not only further the story but leave the audience in awe as well and you have the recipe for an experience that in no way resembles standard horror tropes.  Both Hiddleston and Chastain are consistently excellent as each of their respective roles seem to evolve as the film progresses, giving us two characters who are multilayered and full of emotion.  A welcome quality for a horror film to have.  “Crimson Peak” isn’t the kind of film where your expectations will be met, instead del Toro chooses to create a whole new set of expectations for future films to emulate.  It’s as if the spookiness of it all occurs in a whole other realm. GRADE: B+