Crimson Peak

Year: 2015
Studio: Universal
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Producer: Guillermo Del Toro/Thomas Tull
Writer: Guillermo Del Toro/Matthew Robbins
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Burn Gorman, Doug Jones

An interesting thing about ghost stories is that instead of actually being about ghosts, they're usually mystery stories about the reason the ghosts got there in the first place. The spooks and apparitions are just the foil through which the characters find the truth about the murder, disappearance, abusive family life or inhumane mental asylum that led to the haunting.

Nowhere is this separation of device and narrative more apparent in Guillermo Del Toro's latest film, Crimson Peak, where the presence of ghosts lies somewhere between incidental and unnecessary. It's a ghost story because heroine Edith (Mia Wasikowska) has been able to see them since she was a child, and fate delivers her to a place where there happens to be one – the stately but crumbling manor of the title.

But the ghosts she sees, while they propel her deeper into the mystery, aren't very critical to the plot. In revealing the truth about what happened at Crimson Peak, they could have been anything from fairies or dreams to letters hidden around the house. They only seem to be ghosts because the aesthetic of the film is so ghostly, the haunted gothic romance affectation the common thread that makes the paranormal seem to belong.

But where the story doesn't quite hang together, it's (as always) in the aesthetic where Del Toro shines. Every frame is a beautifully crafted work of art – the costumes lavish, the (real, as opposed to digital) sets alive and restless and the acting by leads Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain very British and theatrical. Every aspect of Crimson Peak's design is a love letter to gothica.

Edith wants to be a writer in an age where women should hold no such pretensions. Her loving father indulges her hobby while he tends to his mining empire, but when he's approached by a seemingly upstanding Englishman, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) to invest in the latter's small mining operation back on his English estate, Edith is quite taken.

Sharpe's icy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) stays on the sidelines, and even before you see her whispering to her brother about Edith being 'the one', you won't trust her as far as you could throw her.

After her father's mysterious murder, Edith marries Thomas and accompanies he and Lucille back to their huge but decaying home, a nasty place where snow falls through a sunlit hole in the huge entry chamber and where the red clay seeps up through the ground, making it look like everything's covered in blood.

But the wheels start to come off whatever nefarious plan Thomas and Lucille are cooking up when Thomas starts to actually fall in love with Edith and question his sister's insistence that they stick to the plan. Edith, meanwhile, is tormented by a blackened spectre that keeps bursting out from the floor as she sneaks around the groaning, heaving house trying to figure out what's really going on.

Even though the look of the film is so distinctive, you'll also be reminded of other movies as varied as The Shining and Flowers in the Attic. It also looks like the Guillermo Del Toro produced (and Jessica Chastain-starring) Mama – to such an extent, in fact, you'll wonder if he had a whole lot of CGI ghost renders and trained moths left over that they had to use in another movie to get their money back.

Hardcore fans of Del Toro's work will probably consider it a return to his roots of Cronos and The Devil's Backbone. Pacific Rim is still a better movie than Crimson Peak, but it contained a few too many Michael Bay shades for many.

So even if the presence of ghosts is kind of redundant and the story is a bit ill-disciplined, the lived-in, in-camera mood is gorgeous and creepy, looking as good as any haunted house story you've loved since childhood.

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