In almost four years of reviewing movies the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in a movie theater was watching Mama, the 2013 horror movie produced by Guillermo del Toro. I remember very few of the particulars of that movie but what I remember quite viscerally was scene after scene of being transfixed by the action on the screen and wanting nothing more than for it to be over. Crimson Peak is the first movie since then to recreate that feeling so precisely, when the movie wanted to scare me I was consistently scared to what I believe to be the maximum level I can be scared while watching a movie. No matter what else I thought about the movie, it was completely successful at its objective and that’s worth a lot.
Guillermo del Toro seems as if he was put on this earth to make a movie set in a decaying Victorian manor house full of ghosts. It takes a little while to get to the titular setting, but once we’re there the movie is consistently breathtakingly beautiful. The house is falling apart, the roof is barely present in the main hall, the pipes run with blood red water, and the house is sinking in to a foundation of soft red clay and every little detail is the perfect visual metaphor for the story at hand. Crimson Peak has the perfect gothic look and it seems so effortless; like what Tim Burton would do if he could let go of being quite so precious.
I suppose if we keep the Burton metaphor alive, then Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain feel more than a little like a redux version of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but that’s not giving either actor enough credit. Neither makes me feel quite as weary playing well-worn gothic archetypes, although between this and Only Lovers Left Alive, Hiddleston should probably watch his step. Chastain is especially good in this and is playing so far against her normal type that she becomes almost completely enveloped in the role of Lucile. Lucile is a magnetic character that demands attention whenever she’s on screen, and while she never has to share the screen with one of the film’s grotesque ghosts I would say she’s even more arresting in the frame.
I’ve said that this movie is terrifying, beautiful, and has standout acting, but unfortunately the story is a little thin. The actual plot is very straightforward, and anyone who has regularly consumed any media at all in their life will know all the twists and turns of the plot in the first half hour or so. All roads lead in one direction and the film happily chugs along that path with no real diversion and a handful of pit stops to show off some horrifying ghost effects. It doesn’t make the movie less enjoyable to watch, it’s always the journey more than the destination with any piece of narrative, but it would have been nice to be surprised by something that wasn’t a specter bursting through a wall or floor.
I’m deeply impressed by Crimson Peak, and I sincerely hope that del Toro goes and does a few more things before returning to horror. I would love to see a Pacific Rim sequel or another Hellboy movie or if he still has the desire to do an endless fantasy epic after his adaptation of The Hobbit fell through I would gladly watch that. I could use another 30-month break before I have to squirm through a collection of scenes as scary as I was given in Crimson Peak or that he influenced in his work on Mama. I’m delighted to get to watch a master work the way del Toro makes horror movies but I’m afraid I just don’t have the constitution— and more than that, I’m afraid to see what he’ll do to scare me next time.