Guillermo del Toro has long been hailed as a master of horror, finding new ways to subvert expectations and deliver on scares while giving his tales an emotional depth that can often be lacking in the genre. From the haunting Pan’s Labyrinth to the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, del Toro is interested not just in monsters, but in the people who have monstrous things inside them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Crimson Peak, the often overlooked 2015 film that explores how the path to darkness is long and twisted, with many chances for redemption along the way.
Crimson Peak follows Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a rich American heiress whose tendency towards the macabre after a dark childhood leads to her dream of writing Gothic novels. She meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), immediately falling for the charming but haunted Thomas despite the warnings of her dear friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam) and her father (Jim Beaver). When she and Thomas marry after her father’s death, relocating to his home at Allerdale Hall in England, it becomes clear to Edith that there is something deeply wrong in the house — and potentially in its inhabitants.
A Gothic romance that serves as del Toro’s love letter to stories like Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, Jane Eyre, and The Turn of the Screw, Crimson Peak was never given the praise it was due upon its release. Horror fans adored it, judging from its many wins and nominations at the Saturn Awards that year including Best Picture. But despite a trio of fantastic performances from actors who were at their respective career peaks and stunning production design, Crimson Peak was barely profitable financially and did not make an impact during mainstream awards season (where The Shape of Water would dominate just two years later). In light of the film’s recent availability on Netflix, it’s time to examine why Crimson Peak is a Gothic masterpiece worth getting lost in and one of del Toro’s best films.
Beware: Spoilers for Crimson Peak past this point.
From its opening scene, the film delivers on its promise of terrifying scares. As Edith narrates “ghosts are real, this much I know,” we see her child self contend with the deformed ghost of her recently deceased mother. But the outright scares are secondary to the character development and a general sense of eeriness. Each ghost we later see in Allerdale Hall is a trapped soul, relating specifically to Edith’s predicament. They also haunt Thomas and, along with his love for Edith, eventually spur his attempt to assuage his guilt and eventually die for his sins. del Toro is a master at building tension, and the finale only inspires genuine fear because of the care taken to lay the groundwork for it throughout the film. del Toro has said that Crimson Peak was his tribute to the classic haunted house movies of the past, and by confining much of the later action to Allerdale Hall, he creates a claustrophobic environment mirroring the sense of dread Edith feels as she discovers Thomas and Lucille’s true plans.
The story is a Gothic romance, which is defined by scholars as works featuring “isolated settings with semi-supernatural phenomena … female protagonists battling through terrifying ordeals while struggling to be with their true loves.” Jane Eyre is one of the best known examples of this type of story, and it shares many tropes with Crimson Peak: brooding suitor with a secret agenda, a mysterious old home, an interfering malevolent character whose past directly influences the central romance, and a protagonist who is out of her element and alone. Crimson Peak is structured like a classic novel and set in a time period where this type of story was incredibly popular. Edith’s perspective and narration being the centerpiece of the film makes it a prime example of a modern Gothic romance. The use of Edith and Lucille as the protagonist and antagonist while largely relegating Thomas and Alan to supporting roles is also a refreshingly feminist viewpoint (not to mention the film’s depiction of sexuality and female desire). It is clear how much del Toro loves this type of story in his writing and direction, and its old fashioned approach makes it stand out amidst modern horror films.
Of course, a good story isn’t worth much without the performances to bring it to life. All three members of the central trio are perfectly cast, with Wasikowska, Hiddleston, and Chastain leaning into their respective characters as if they are performing a play. Wasikowska plays Edith’s naivete well, but she adds an edge under the surface that makes her instantly more interesting than a typical romantic female lead. Her dawning realization that the man she loves is entangled in evil is heartbreaking, but we also see that she is strong enough to survive the revelation. Edith needs to be a well drawn character to compete with the more compelling and dark Thomas and Lucille, and Wasikowska’s performance ensures that Edith is memorable.
Hiddleston and Chastain also shine, with Chastain getting to chew the scenery as the more straightforward villain of the incestuous siblings. Her desperation to hold on to her control of Thomas is palpable, and her final showdown with Edith is feral in its passion. When Chastain delivers Lucille’s monologue about how her love for Thomas makes her do ugly things to preserve it, she is terrifying in her calmness. Hiddleston plays Thomas as a fundamentally broken man who becomes stronger by loving Edith. Hiddleston has always had a lot of charisma as an actor, with his most well known role as Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a prime example of his ability to make a villain charming. But Hiddleston knowingly makes Thomas the weaker of the two siblings – while Thomas is interesting and we can see why Edith is drawn to him; he does not have the appeal common in most romantic heroes (or indeed, in most Gothic romantic leads). Chastain and Hiddleston’s scenes together have an intensity to them that is disturbing, and both actors deliver unconventional performances.
The final ingredient that makes Crimson Peak special is its devotion to practical effects and stunning sets. It is criminal that the late Thomas Sanders was not nominated for an Oscar for his creation of Allerdale Hall and the film’s overall production design. The look of the film is astonishing, and without the creepy and dark design the story would lose its emotional punch. Additionally, the costume, makeup, and hairstyling teams deserved recognition for their Victorian era looks and bloody injuries (not to mention their ghostly creations).
Each ghost is designed with identifiable features and great care was clearly taken with their characterization. Even more unique in a world where CGI is the norm for horror films of this scale, all the ghosts were played by frequent del Toro collaborators Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, Star Trek: Discovery) and Javier Botet (Mama, It), both responsible for so many iconic creatures. The physical reality of the ghosts makes them that much more horrifying, and with real actors performing the roles their pain becomes so much more clear. The practical effects also fit the overall goal of creating an old fashioned horror story for a modern audience, and Crimson Peak feels like a film that could have been released in the Universal Horror era of the 1930s and been right at home. A special mention must also be given to the gorgeous score by Fernando Velázquez, which sets the gloomy mood and adds a punch to the emotional beats.
Crimson Peak is one of Guillermo del Toro’s greatest masterpieces and one of his most underappreciated works. Like The Shape of Water, it is a love letter to an earlier film era, and like Pan’s Labyrinth, it is a cautionary fairy tale. But it is completely its own film, from the Victorian sexuality to its commitment to the Gothic romance archetypes. For del Toro, Crimson Peak was a passion project that was in development for years looking for just the right mix of talent to come together. The love everyone had for the project is evident in each frame, and every department from art to acting to directing pulled off this team effort effectively. Ideally, its inclusion on Netflix will help it find fans beyond the devoted cult following it has amassed since its release and give it the recognition it deserves among del Toro’s filmography (and in horror in general).