Guillermo del Toro returns to his filmmaking roots with a lavish haunted house horror
The master of modern horror returns to the field in which he made his name with a sumptuous period piece that's head over heels for tradition. With Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro steers far straighter than in his comparable efforts, playing by the established rules to craft a film that wants to be the final word on haunted house horror, as its director embraces and finesses myriad genre tropes, cranking the spectacle up so far it's astonishing it shows no sign of the strain.
Beginning in Buffalo, New York in 1901, we see how Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) – an aspiring, Mary Shelley-loving author – is manipulated into falling for devious inventor Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). When a tragedy suddenly and suspiciously befalls Edith, Thomas takes her back to England to live in the towering, rotting Allerdale Hall, which he shares with his jealous pianist sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). With snow falling through the roof, red clay bubbling up beneath the floorboards, groans emanating from the walls, and a spindly presence lurking in the shadows, it's a long way from the honey glow of Edith's home sweet home.
Crimson Peak sees del Toro take another crack at the old dark house territory he recently explored in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a middling effort, directed by Troy Nixey and penned by del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Robbins is his co-writer again on a film which joins the tradition of superior ghost stories like The Innocents, The Others and Rebecca. It contains one of the spookiest cinematic snowscapes since The Shining, while its Gothic grandstanding means it largely resembles a Hammer horror that's shamelessly blown its budget.
The story is simple and, yes, predictable but the elite cast elevate proceedings, layering in determination, regret and sorrow, with Chastain stealing the show as she goes from spinster to vamp to, well, something else. Thomas E Sanders' production design is a work of perpetual wonder; the same goes for Dan Laustsen's glossy cinematography. If the CGI spectres are a tad unconvincing, then what they lack in creepiness they make up for in ferocity and there are some well-staged frights.
Working within the constraints of the sub-genre means this doesn't reach the imaginative heights of some of del Toro's more idiosyncratic work (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth). It's no instant classic then, but this tale of bleeding love stands tall as one of the most visually striking films in years.
General release from Fri 16 Oct.