The last time Guillermo del Toro turned to horror, he wrote Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which I consider the closest any movie has come to capturing the feel of an H.P. Lovecraft story despite not being based on one. Lovecraft never went in much for ghost stories, but if he had, the result would probably look a lot like Crimson Peak. Beautiful and deliciously moody, this is a film that knows enough to place story ahead of scares.
It’s 1901 in Buffalo, New York, and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer. She wants to spin gothic horror stories, like Mary Shelley, but the one man in town who could publish her stories insists that a woman writer like her needs to include a love story. A local doctor, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), has a crush on her, but she’s shy and retiring, and avoids social engagements.
But then she meets her Byronic hero, Lord Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). He and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) are the last of their family line. Their ancestral land is barren heath, mostly suitable for clay mining, and all of the mines have collapsed. Thomas is an inventor, trying to develop a modern mining engine. He’s come to Buffalo to court investors, including Edith’s widowed father (Jim Beaver), but immediately falls for Edith. This doesn’t sit well with Edith’s father, who would rather pay off Thomas to get rid of him. But when his head is smashed open on a sink the morning the Sharpes are to leave, Edith follows her heart.
Just as the House of Sharpe has degenerated, Allerdale Hall is falling apart. The house is ancient and creaky. A giant hole in the foyer ceiling lets in all sorts of weather, and the whole edifice is sinking into the same red clay mud that seeps through freshly-fallen snow like blood through a linen sheet. And there are more dead souls in the house than living. Edith can see their ghosts, as she saw the skeletal ghost of her mother. These ectoplasmic apparitions — portrayed by the ectomorphic Doug Jones and Javier Botet — appear frightening, but they’re not here to scare us so much as to point Edith towards the mystery of the Sharpes, and the cause of their own demise.
Everything about the film is gorgeous. Fernando Velázquez’ swelling, romantic score would be overbearing in most situations, but is perfectly matched against the gothic backdrop. The architectural details of Allerdale Hall are fantastic and foreboding. The period details set the mood perfectly, from Kate Hawley’s sumptuous costume design down to fixtures like the wax cylinder phonograph Edith discovers.
The marketing department, in their infinite wisdom, has front-loaded the trailers and ads with all of the horror elements the movie has to offer; some audiences are bound to be disappointed at the lack of cheap jump-scares. But, while he can and does turn up the shocks when appropriate, del Toro knows better than to build the whole film out of them. In a gothic mode like this, every ghost story is a love story, even as that love corrupts, diseases, decays, and sinks away into the clay from whence it came.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.