For his ninth feature, Guillermo del Toro scales down, hinging a plot on emotional instability colliding with the supernatural, rather than world-ending crisis. Crimson Peak rolls out slowly, embracing audiences into its machinations rather than trying pull the rug out from under them. When we’re introduced to aristocratic twins Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), everyone clocks something off-putting about them, as they seek capital to fund a mining project which will restore the Sharpe family fortune. No one can put a finger on it, but it’s there. Even new money heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) seems unsure of the pair, despite being swept up in a romance with the charming, boyish inventor Thomas. Before long, tragedy and circumstance align the courtship: Edith and Thomas are married and off to the crumbling English estate of Allerdale Hall, sinking into the ruddy ground while snow sprinkles in from an unfixed roof. Intimate whispers between the siblings indicate plans. Plans which may have to do with the spirits Edith sees and hears in the night.
Freed from keeping up any pretense of unmasking normalcy, del Toro instead delights in showing strands come together, tension arising out of dramatic irony rather than jump scares. Once Allerdale is reached, the action splits three ways: Edith wandering the home, chasing puzzle pieces and ghosts; the Sharpes plotting, arguing, and persuading one another; and Edith’s bland childhood friend (Charlie Hunnam), piecing together clues about the siblings back in New York. Crimson Peak becomes about who knows what when, and whether the others realize this. It’s a dynamic similar to Alfred Werker’s Shock: Edith, the innocent victim, in the thrall of ill-intended caretakers unsure with how to proceed. Lucille, more singular and very jealous, is eager to conclude the gruesome task (highlighted best when delivering a speech about caring for her mother to a bed-ridden Edith, Chastain scraping a bowl of porridge like she’s sharpening a knife). Thomas waffles, drawn towards opposed yet equally determined women, seeking out reconciliation.
This leaves the ghosts to percolate at the edge of the plot, acting as spoilers. Existing somewhere between physical states, wispy yet earthen material undulating their forms, they’re as likely to offer up warnings of the future as they are hints of the past, implying a perception of time alien to our own. Del Toro uses them sparingly, leaving this murky concept of the afterlife an abstraction. Encounters leave mere mortals dumbfounded, provincial motives briefly forgotten in the face of something unknown.