This review originally appeared on Cinedelphia.com
"This is a story with a ghost, but it is not a ghost story."
There is a mantra used to train salespeople to effectively communicate ideas persuasively to customers: "I'm going to tell you what I'm going to tell you, I'm going to tell you, then I'm going to tell you what I told you." This is exactly how Crimson Peak is conveyed-- with the clues to solve the puzzle hidden in plain sight. The payoff is astounding. Part dinner-theater mystery, part haunted mansion ride, director Guillermo del Toro constructs a visually spectacular and wholly disturbing tale that contains one of the most deliciously evil villains in years.
Like any amusement park ride, the fun of Crimson Peak resides in its twists and turns, so I will be short on plot details. Admittedly, I had not even seen the trailer for Crimson Peak ahead of seeing it. And even having no clue what I was in for, as I scribbled down details in my notebook during the first half of the film, I was preparing to write how disappointed I was. "Crimson Peak is melodramatic, predictable garbage with a CG-horror spit shine", I would have wrote. The story was revolving around this well-to-do daughter named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) that has seen ghosts in the past and is writing a fictional story based on her encounters. After falling in love with Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a roaming salesman looking for investors to build his clay mining company, Edith moves into the Sharpe estate with Thomas and his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). The Sharpe house is a dilapidated mansion; an enormous, eroding behemoth that is a character unto itself.
And at that point, I thought I had this story pegged-- a period horror movie that takes place in a creepy house where our protagonist gets stuck in set pieces with gross, inventive creatures designed by del Toro. Boy was I wrong.
There's a moment in Crimson Peak where everything clicks. The gilded dialogue, the eye-rolling love story, the cheap jump scares. Everything serves as a grand illusion for the real core of Crimson Peak, a much more horrifying reality than any ghost or creature could possibly muster. What's more unsettling is that del Toro telegraphs this operatic turn throughout the entire film. It was immensely satisfying to realize that del Toro had somehow rope-a-doped the audience while simultaneously telling them plainly via meta dialogue what was going to happen all along.
The storytelling is also layered visually in ways that only auteurs like del Toro can. Seemingly benign exchanges are injected with a sense of foreboding as moths helplessly hurl themselves at the flames in a lantern lighting the scene. Quiet, boring moments that intentionally lull the audience are punctuated by punishingly brutal bursts of violence. Pleasant conversation over tea turns sinister with the scrape of a spoon against a teacup. Crimson Peak is a staunch reminder why Guillermo del Toro is labeled as a visionary director.
To say more would spoil why I found this flick so effective, but it is a must-see if you are a fan of psychological horror. Crimson Peak has haunted me for days, not because its scary creatures, but because of the uniquely terrifying story serving at its center. The film reminds me a lot of Kubrick's The Shining, and I don't throw that comparison around lightly.