A few years ago, with Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro took the 1950s Japanese monster movie and made it his own by combining modern flash and up-to-date attitudes with old-fashioned pulp energy. Now he does the same for gothic horror in Crimson Peak, a deliciously creepy haunted-house story that oozes eldritch atmosphere yet plays with our genre expectations in ways that make the movie as funny as it is scary. We may expect walls that drip blood, but do we expect a rational scientific reason for such a gruesome spectacle? We may expect ghosts to torment our hapless heroine, Mia Wasikowska’s (Madame Bovary, Maps to the Stars) charming and spirited Edith Cushing of Buffalo, New York, but do we expect– no, I shan’t reveal any more.
Edith is an ambitious modern women — for 1890s values of “modern,” and also in some ways still for today, too — who dreams of getting her spooky fiction published; she deems herself more Mary Shelley than Jane Austen, and resists writing the love story editors believe she is more suited for. Crimson Peak itself reflects Edith’s commitment: though she meets, falls for, and eventually marries the handsome British aristocrat, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston: Muppets Most Wanted, Thor: The Dark World), this is not a love story: it is the tale what happens when she returns to England with Thomas and his Morticia Addams-esque sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain: The Martian, Interstellar), after the wedding, to the Sharpe manor, an ominous imposing pile of a house, shrouded in gloom and surrounded, of course, by miles of nothing but empty gray moors. The undead roam the creaky hallways, and Edith is very clearly in danger in this place. And yet while she is most definitely frightened by what is happening in the house, she is also determined to solve the mystery of it.
Genre tables are turned as the secrets of the house and of the Sharpes are revealed; perhaps the only non-spoilery example I can offer is that at times, Edith wandering the house at night with her long hair and white nightgown is more traditionally ghostlike than anything else you will see here. (No, she is not secretly a ghost or actually dead or anything like that; this isn’t that sort of ghost story.) Writer (with Matthew Robbins: Mimic) and director del Toro has his tongue as firmly in his cheek as, well, that axe was once buried in someone’s head in the Sharpe family history, and the marvelous cast is along for the ride, too, walking a razor-fine line between straight dramatic performances and over-the-top furniture-chewing melodrama. And what furniture there is to chew, all velvet curtains and overstuffed armchairs and four-postered, flying-buttressed beds. Crimson Peak is great good fun, pure popcorn entertainment of the highest, eeriest order.