During a tense, pivotal moment in Guillermo del Toro’s new thriller, Crimson Peak, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain) serves a young bride, Edith Cushing, (Mia Wasikowska) a cup of tea. Every moment is infused with as much drama as possible; as Lucille spoons sugar into the tea, she scrapes it along the rim, towards Edith, with what can only be described as murderous intent. That’s the kind of movie Crimson Peak is: Del Toro won’t let a scene pass without smashing the audience in the face with it, but you can’t help but admire his audacity.
The director has shied away from describing Crimson Peak as a horror film, though it contains many ghosts, a few jump scares, and as many suspenseful creaks and groans as can fit in its two-hour running time. Instead, he’s billed it as a “Gothic romance” in the vein of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca or George Cukor’s Gaslight. In terms of dialogue and acting, the film certainly has that 1940s Old Hollywood style: The dialogue is either nakedly emotional or thuddingly symbolic, and the eventual plot twists are easy to get. Though Crimson Peak’s tone is arch enough that it won’t be for everyone, there’s definitely a gory, beating heart at its core.
The characters are straight out of a romance novel. Edith is the plucky heroine, an aspiring novelist patronized at every turn by 19th-century misogyny; her only defender is her industrialist father (Jim Beaver), who meets a nasty and suspicious end when he objects to her new suitor, the penniless English lord Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Thomas whisks Edith off to his family home, a crumbling manse nicknamed Crimson Peak that is, without hyperbole, the most-haunted house in the history of the world.
It has a good half-dozen ghosts, rendered in sinewy CGI with much dripping blood and exposed muscle, creeping and shrieking around at night for Edith to fret over. It’s built over a scarlet clay mine, so it looks like blood is literally seeping from the walls and floorboards. There’s a creepy basement filled with locked suitcases, a shuddering elevator, a secret attic, and Thomas’s brooding sister, Lucille, whose idea of hospitality is bursting into the room with a tea tray any time Edith gets too close to her newlywed husband.
The house’s many secrets are easy to lay bare, and Edith quickly sets about revealing them. Edith is being gaslit, certainly, as Thomas and Lucille try to convince her that she’s going mad, and simply imagining all the ghosts who clank around night after night. But in a twist on the Gothic formula, she’s got the fortitude to see past their assurances and stick up for herself. She also has a nice-guy suitor from back home in Buffalo, a doctor named Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who shows up trying to rescue her and mostly does a terrible job of it. In an older movie, Alan would be the strapping hero; here, he’s a bit of a doof, though a well-meaning one.
Thomas and Lucille, for all the secrets they’re carrying, are also more tragic antiheroes than full-on villains, although Chastain plays Lucille’s jealous intensity to the hilt. Her accent is wobbly, but her death stare is not; she’s matched in ferocity by the costume and production design, from the house itself (built in its entirety by the art director Thomas E. Sanders and stuffed with detail) to the many, many gowns. Del Toro, who’s made some great gore-fests in the past, also includes some shocking violence just to keep nerves extra frayed.
Crimson Peak will not be for everyone. It’s a gratuitous film, and proudly so, from the performances on down: If your reaction to a haunted house with non-stop bleeding walls is “that sounds like a bit much,” then everything else may end up feeling similarly on the nose. But its swooning emotion is consistent if nothing else, and builds to a marvelous crescendo with the final showdown, both in terms of thrills and pathos. To say more would be to spoil, but Del Toro certainly knows not to let any of his characters bid adieu without an on-the-nose monologue and extreme jab of violence. Now that’s a talent to die for.