Of all of the horror subgenres that exist, the oldest of all of them is Gothic horror. Named in honor of an architectural style from the Middle Ages, Gothic horror was born in the late 18th century by writers such as Horace Wadpole and Ann Radcliffe. Within the pages of stories such as The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho, they presented a world that thrives upon the fear of the unknown. Even as critics derided the genre, other writers such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Bronte sisters added to the genre, helping to solidify how the public saw it. With the skilled stories of such writers, Gothic horror became a world of dark and shadowy corridors, lurking with brooding noblemen and cursed secrets. Not only that, but the Gothic horror genre would also feature plenty of works infused with other genres, such as romance, fantasy, and even science fiction. However, the genre has fallen away in recent decades, having become supplanted by modern horror. Of course, it is not completely forgotten. Universal Studios and Hammer Studios are two production companies whose films brought Gothic horror to the silver screen, with Universal ruling in the ’30s and ’40s while Hammer Studios dominated in the ’50s and ’60s. Now, film director Guillermo del Toro has come to bring his own tale of Gothic horror to the movie screen, in the form of Crimson Peak.
Set in the Victorian Era, Crimson Peak follows Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman who seeks to write ghost stories. Her life is changed, however, when she meets the mysterious Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a penniless baronet seeking capital for an invention of his. Warmed by his appreciation for her writing, Edith ends up falling in love with Thomas and eventually the two become married. Once they do, they move back to Thomas’ home in England, a crumbling mansion estate known as Allerdale Hall. Also living at Allerdale Hall with them is Thomas’ tight-lipped and tightly-wound sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain). Things begin to take a darker turn, however, as Edith finds they are not the only ones in the crumbling mansion. Lying within its halls are ghosts, spectres of the past who bare a warning to Edith: Beware of Crimson Peak.
I really liked what Guillermo del Toro went for with this film. He went full force on capturing the feel of Gothic horror, building up a foreboding atmosphere as the tale unfolds. He embraced the genre’s tropes, recapturing their classic spark with a modern touch. It is also a visually stunning film. Allerdale Hall looks like the quintessential haunted house, with its worn walls and darkened corridors. The architecture is stunning, yet also haunting. There is even the inspired touch of red clay seeping up through the floorboards, causing anyone walking through to leave what appears like bloody footprints. The ghosts also look incredible, presented as floating spectres who bare the marks of their death and whose bodies are at varying degrees of visibility. As always, Guillermo del Toro brings his unique viewpoint to the screen with his visual flourish. The performances are also strong, working well for this unraveling tale of horror and madness. Now, there is something that might turn away some viewers: it is not that scary of a film.
Now, this is an issue that I do not hold completely against the movie. To most of the public and with how the movie has been sold in trailers and commercials, it would look as if the style of film is that of a haunted house horror movie. Honestly, that’s not the sort of story that this is. It would be far better to treat this film as what it is, which is a Gothic romance. While there are ghosts in the story, they are not the focal point of it. The true focus of the film is on Edith, the Sharpe siblings, and the dark secrets that lurk within the past of Allerdale Hall. Also, the horror that does unfold in the film is very much from the same style as Gothic horror. This means that the film takes a slow burn approach in its story, leaning on atmosphere and tension to build up the scares before its grand climax. However, such an approach might sour some moviegoers, more used to the quicker pace and action-filled sequences that are more of a thing in modern horror. Thus, it may seem as if the film isn’t that scary. To tell the truth, it is a strong slice of Gothic horror. Sadly, Gothic horror is a form that has fallen out of fashion in the face of modern horror movies which can deliver a visceral punch as they deliver their scares. Basically, this means that Crimson Peak is a well-skilled take on a form of horror that might not chill as many people to the bone these days.
In the end, I think Crimson Peak is worth checking out. Though it may not be as scary as some horror movies in recent years, it is still a stunning film to watch in terms of its visuals and its ability to recreate one of the classic forms of horror. In a way, it is like some of Guillermo del Toro’s other horror movies, like Cronos or The Devil’s Backbone. These are horror films that offer chilling tales, with an atmosphere that builds to unnerve and a reminder of how even those creatures that seem terrifying, whether it is ghosts who roam dark halls or vampires who feast on blood, are not the real monsters to fear.