Crimson Peak (2015) — Best haunted house ever

“The things we do for love like this are ugly, mad, full of sweat and regret.”

Justin’s rating: Asking way above the selling price

Justin’s review: “This is a ghost story!” “No, it’s a story with a ghost in it.”

Such are the remarks at the beginning of Crimson Peak between a book publisher and Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska). This is thinly disguised advice for the audience’s expectations while watching this movie. It’s not a horror movie, even though it is filled with spooks, but rather a gorgeous-looking gothic romance helmed by Guillermo del Toro.

Honestly, you just have to say his name and I’ll show up to the party, whatever it may be. Del Toro has a Midas touch of a sorts, except that is isn’t to turn things into gold but not-always-respected genres into sumptuous works of art. Of this, Crimson Peak is no doubt one of his finest products, even if it is from mere “haunted house movie” stock.

It’s the kind of movie that my wife would swoon over if it wasn’t for the, you know, ghosts. But its DNA is certainly drenched in Victorian era romances, with lots of impressively handsome outfits and overly formal etiquette and whatnot. Toss in the supernatural, the most atmospheric haunted mansion ever put to film, and a tantalizing mystery, and you’ve got a reason to stick around for a rather special experience.

It’s 1901, and aspiring writer Edith falls in love with and marries Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a struggling British land and business owner who’s on the cusp of failure. Edith moves into his decaying mansion on top of Crimson Peak, so named for the red clay that is both the source of Thomas’ business and the oh-so-gradual ruin of the mansion itself.

While all of this presumably starts with romance and love, it’s not heading in that direction. Strange things are afoot with Thomas and his frosty sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), there’s something odd going on with a ring that is now given to Edith, parts of the house are held off limits to her, and the mansion itself is crawling with ghosts. Did I mention that Edith sees the dead? Of course she sees the dead. And the dead are certainly keen on warning her of great danger that lurks in and under Crimson Peak.

This is the sort of rare movie where nearly every single frame could be put onto a wall as a thing of art. Del Toro does things with color and light here that will make other movies cry with deep shame that they’ll never look this incredible. The house itself would be memorable enough if it was in pristine condition, but the filmmakers give it a pervasive decay that takes it to another level entirely. As a long-time fan of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, I’ve long been looking for a cinematic equal of the special blend that captures beauty and spooky. Here it is at last.

Even the ghosts of Crimson Peak are not your standard lazy cinematic ghastlies. The way they appear and move is not to evoke lazy jump scares, but to attempt to communicate something important from the great beyond. Sometimes they appear as spectral brides, sometimes as wisps of dust, and sometimes blood-red with long fingers curling around doorposts. It may well be the first ghost story where I actually looked forward to seeing the next spectral appearance.

So no, this isn’t a ghost story. It’s a story with a ghost or two in it — and those ghosts aren’t here for cheap scares but rather to be an important part of the unfolding mystery. Crimson Peak is a masterpiece of a particular kind, the kind that will endure long after its initial run.

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