Perhaps this is a cliché at this point, but Guillermo del Toro is one of the most criminally underappreciated directors of modern cinema. This is a man with a vision for the macabre that is unparalleled and is consistently undermined by the lack of box office returns. So with Crimson Peak it makes sense that del Toro would work with a smaller budget, but boy would you never guess it from the work he has assembled. It is only slightly unfortunate then that this gorgeous film doesn’t have a nearly compelling enough story to accompany it.
As a bit of on-the-nose metatextual commentary early in the film points out, this isn’t a ghost story, but a story with ghosts in it, despite what the film’s horror-based marketing would have you believe. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a struggling author and daughter of a wealthy businessman who one day meets the charming Sir Thomas Sharpe (a surprisingly un-Loki Tom Hiddleston). Thomas whisks her off her feet and, after the mysterious murder of her father, takes her away to live with him upon his mountaintop home, named Crimson Peak after the clay deposits that stain the snowy mountaintop a blood red. As Edith lives with Thomas and his cold and distant sister Lucille, she comes to discover spectres in the house, leading her to believe there is more than meets the eye to her new husband and the dilapidated estate that is her new home.
The film is structured in such a way as to keep plenty of surprise plot twists and intrigue for the latter half, but unfortunately those twists are telegraphed way too early and too often to come as much of a surprise by the time comes for their unveiling. This is a shame too because the plot is actually quite interesting and not so much a matter of supernatural horror as it is a slow boil of tense relationships. Though the film turns out quite predictable, the climax it builds to is fantastically realized and will likely stick in people’s minds long after the credits roll.
And this is because the film is, in an unexaggerated word, gorgeous. Del Toro is, as always, the master of the color palate, mixing reds and whites and yellows to make some of the most memorable set and costume choices of the past year. The sets of Crimson Peak are superbly detailed and perfectly structured to evoke a sense of gothic mystery in nearly every frame. As for the ghosts themselves, the use of CGI is both minimal and unobtrusive, and the uniquely bloody designs are obviously del Toro’s without pushing the film into full Pan’s Labyrinth horror territory. If there were one film that has been snubbed an Oscar nomination for production design, it’s Crimson Peak, hands down.
Guillermo del Toro may not always be the best screenwriter, but he is most undoubtedly one of the technical masters of our times. Even if his film’s story fails to fully engage, he at least knows how to put gorgeous images to film and enthrall us with a unique vision for the creepy and grisly that never relies on cheap or tired horror tactics. Crimson Peak may not be one of his best films, but it deserves recognition as a worthy addition to del Toro’s extensive library of fantastic direction. Hopefully the success of this film will convince studios that del Toro can sit the director’s chair for another big budget masterpiece. (Like, say, Pacific Rim 2!)