Crimson Peak is not the horror film you’re expecting — at least if you go by the marketing for Guillermo del Toro’s creepy callback to the horror genre of yesteryear. The previews build expectations that will almost certainly let down those expecting a film pivoting around a supernatural showdown. Written by del Toro and veteran Matthew Robbins (Sugarland Express, Mimic), Crimson Peak () uses misdirection to its advantage, as del Toro edges toward expectations, and then delivers something else entirely.
“Ghosts are real,” says Edith Cushing (a porcelain, luminous Mia Wasikowska) at the start of a journey that will forever change her life. And while ghostly apparitions, both blood red and deep black, are indeed crucial to the narrative, it’s brother and sister Thomas and Lucille Sharp (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain) who generate the real ambiguity, dread and fear. Forcing themselves on the naive, impressionable Edith, they are sinister siblings whose slow, insidious burn inevitably reaches a terrifying, truly disturbing boiling-over point.
Lustrously photographed, and lavishly art directed with attention to ubiquitous metaphor (bright red clay oozes from crumbling floorboards like blood seeping through rotting flesh), Crimson Peak harkens to the movies of the ’40s. The dialogue is heavily starched and delivered with meticulous precision — it feels out of time and unnatural, and yet it’s absolutely perfect, evoking nostalgia for a time when movies wore their artifice with pride.
If Crimson Peak has a patron saint, it’s Alfred Hitchcock, with Rebecca, Notorious and Suspicion supplying the oxygen from which the story draws life. (The film has a bit of Robert Wise and Roman Polanski tossed in for good measure.) It’s a potent, old-school experience, with perpetual dread giving way to isolated, shocking moments of brutality that produce full throttle screams. In these days of movie action unfolding at a hyper-rapid clip, it’s nice to encounter a film that takes its time to get to its climax.
Chastain gives a delectable, malice-filled performance as Lucille, one both subtle and overt. Hiddleston’s feral romantic sear, tinged with mournful regret, helps to explain why Edith, an aspiring novelist who eschews the idea of romance, chooses his Tom over Charlie Hunnam’s overly polite, gorgeous young doctor. As Edith’s authoritative yet loving father, Jim Beaver steals every moment he’s on screen.
Gothic horror of the purest kind, Crimson Peak gets under your skin and crawls away with abandon. It leaves you alarmed, unsettled and, most importantly, in a giddy state of cringe-in-your-seat squirm.
Crimson Peak is Rated R for violence and runs 119 minutes. Opens at area theaters on Friday, Oct. 16.
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