It is impossible to watch Guillermo del Toro’s latest gothic horror masterpiece, Crimson Peak, without wondering if there is more to be feared from the living than the dead.
It is a question that Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), would have more cause to muse on than most, after her whirlwind romance with Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a Baronet from England with little money but high hopes of making his fortune from clay mining, turns out to be less about love than other more base desires.
Swept off her feet by a man who raises more red flags than a matador in full flight – both Edith’s doting father Carter (Jim Beaver) and her best friend and would-be suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) warn her against pursuing the romance – budding-author Edith is convinced that Thomas is the man of her dreams and won’t hear a bad word against him.
Their path to the altar however is not an easy one and after a series of tragedies that leave Edith clinging to Thomas for dear life – ironic given how much of the world he and his disapproving sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) exist in is defined by death rather than life – she leaves for England and what she hopes will be a new life, free from sadness and pain.
But ah, when is life ever that simple, especially in the films of del Toro who specialises in exposing the propensity of humanity’s dark side to twist life into all sorts of grotesque, unwelcome forms?
Edith soon discovers that the ghosts she has been seeing since she was a little girl – her first contact with the restless members of the afterlife was with her dead mother who appeared to her in a screaming rush of flowing black, not once but twice, warning her against “Crimson Peak” – should have been heeded rather than cowered from in fear.
Although to be fair, while the ghosts don’t necessarily dominate proceedings – far more insidious is the dark intent and darker still actions of Tom and Lucille whose home Allerdale Hall sits on clay deposits that routinely turn the snow blood red each winter – they are frightening when they do appear, and you can’t blame Edith from running from them rather than listening to them.
Covered more often than not in scarlet red blood and communicating either in spine-tingling screams, their decayed, hideous forms are the true stuff of nightmares, and del Toro uses them effectively not so much to elicit frights, although they do that and more, but to graphically highlight that something is very wrong in the world of Thomas and Lucille Sharpe.
The slow build-up to the big reveal is magnificently orchestrated by del Toro who, in keeping with the intelligence, economy of narrative and elegance of his work, meticulously layers insight after insight, discovery after discovery on top of each other until a picture so frightening emerges that you can well understand why Edith contemplates running away from her new life through the snow in bare feet and a nightgown.
It’s this slow burn, punctuated by moments of true heart-stopping terror that draws you into Crimson Peak and doesn’t let you escape until the bloody finale has played itself out to every last drop.
The genius of the film is that the horror, such as it is, serves the greater needs of the plot rather than the other way around.
The ghosts, though eminently noticeable, impossible to ignore, and of course, suitably terrifying, are servants to the greater lessons of the story which is that appearances can be quite gruesomely and life-endingly deceiving.
Lest this sound far too black and white a theme, del Toro is careful to make that the characters in the film, particularly Thomas and Lucille, are far more layered than you might expect in a horror film.
There is nothing Bond villain-esque about these two – they are desperately sad, flawed people who have endured lives of incalculable, twisted misery and insufficient love, and have reacted accordingly, though not, at least in the case of Thomas, with the singularity of evil intent that lesser films would be content to dwell on.
As with Edith, who reacts in terror as any sane person would, but who is also possessed of courage and a willingness to fight for what she believes in, including her own life if needs be, Thomas is wrought in richly textured, all too human layers that speak to the potential for darkness and light in all of us.
It’s this willingness to forgo cartoon horror villainy and discuss instead the supremely flawed nature of humanity that grants Crimson Peak much of its satisfying richness.
The film is less about the perils and threat of the afterworld and more about the very real dangers inherent in the here and now and the way the living and the dead are inextricably linked.
Scary though it undoubtedly is at times, Crimson Park is, like many of del Toro’s films, a wise and revealing commentary on the state of the human condition wrapped in a breathtakingly beautifully-wrought and edge-of-your-seat gothic thriller than looks every bit as lush and enticing, thanks to the cinematographic work of Dan Laustsen, as it is dark and utterly, mesmerisingly engaging.