Lush Cinematography Makes up for Predictable Plot in New Guillermo del Toro film ‘Crimson Peak’

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmor, Flickr Creative Commons

Guillermo del Toro’s new gothic horror film “Crimson Peak” is black and white and red all over – a gory, lavish masterpiece just in time for Halloween. The beautiful cinematography is undercut by a half-baked plot but is saved by the excellent cast and rich, captivating style.

The plot hinges around the film’s naïve heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska). Edith begins as a fiercely independent amateur author, more inclined to write about horror than deal with contrite romances. Soon, however, Edith finds herself in the middle of a love story, when the charming baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) comes to town looking for investors in the excavation and sale of the red clay his ancient home sits atop. The two begin a predictable romance, much to the disappointment of Edith’s father, under the supervision of Thomas’s cold sister Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). After Edith’s father is mysteriously murdered and she becomes the heiress of her father’s fortune, she is whisked off to England with the Sharpe family as Thomas’s new bride. There, spurred by a few ghostly visits, Edith begins to unwind the treacherous secrets of the house, sometimes called Crimson Peak, and its residents.

Del Toro nails the pacing of the film, with time given to establishing Edith’s life before reaching Crimson Peak and with developing Edith and Thomas’s budding relationship in America. While the entirety of the film is not soaked in blood, there’s more than enough gore later in the film to make up for it. The CGI ghosts that populate the film are less than terrifying, but their gossamer wispiness works in the world del Toro has created.

The cinematography manages to be lush and macabre at the same time. When the characters are in America, the scenes glow with warmth. Halfway through, the golden hues of Edith’s past turn cold at Crimson Peak. The house itself is a cinematic accomplishment. The mansion is a decaying mess, with elegant, grandiose bones. It bleeds (the red clay seeps through the slowly sinking floorboards), it breathes (the wind rushes through the giant holes in the house, creating great, gusty sighs) and it remembers (the ghost of its past are trapped inside its failing walls). Del Toro literally soaks the set in red on the pretense that the clay turns everything from the water in the pipes to the fallen snow outside the symbolic crimson that characterizes the film. The stylization of “Crimson Peak” is certainly its high point.

A predictable storyline and unrealized subplots are where the film falls short. From the very beginning, part of the Sharpe siblings’ duplicity can be guessed at, making the classic horror “twist” at the end fall flat. Subplots are started but aren’t fully fleshed out by the end, another shortcoming of the ambitious film. “Crimson Peak” attempts to combine horror with classic gothic romance, and quite nearly succeeds. However, it takes itself too seriously, which meshes awkwardly with the unrealistically grandiose world del Toro creates.

The cast of the film delivers masterful performances individually, if not collectively. Wasikowska is perfectly suited for Edith, and is no stranger to being the leading lady of period-piece gothic films. Hiddleston smolders and sighs as the film’s dark, mysterious suitor, believably playing the multilayered Thomas. And Chastain manages to endow the villainess Lucille with some ethos. Together, however, the threesome lacks chemistry.

“Crimson Peak” is a must-see for del Toro fans, or any moviegoer who can appreciate the stunning world del Toro has built. That being said, the film doesn’t fall nicely in either the horror or gothic romance genre, and, therefore, may only thrill very specific audiences.