It says a lot about a film's marketing that a director has to take to Twitter and specifically name Crimson Peak for what it is - a gothic romance, not a horror. The trailers, posters and everything surrounding it suggested something closer to an old-fashioned horror story, but coming out of Crimson Peak, it's clear that it's being sold as one thing when it's clear something else entirely.
Mia Wasikowska is Edith Cushing, a precocious young woman in 18th century America who meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet in charge of Allerdale Hall who has come to the States to sell a contraption. Edith's father, Carter (brilliant character actor Jim Beaver), is obviously protective of his daughter so when Thomas begins to take an interest in her, he suspects it's because he wants to access to their wealth and to fund the production of his mechanical digger, which in turn will reverse the failing fortunes of Crimson Peak. Travelling with him is Lucille, played by a straight-backed Jessica Chastain, who is the sternness to his charming frivolity. It isn't long before Edith's father dies violently and she marries Thomas to escape her past. It's her where the film really begins as, many years ago, Edith was warned by the ghost of her mother about Crimson Peak - the local name for Allerdale Hall.
The creaking, groaning, shabby interior of Crimson Peak does little to comfort Edith as it becomes clear that there is more to the house than both Thomas and Lucille are letting on. In fact, it's made quite clear that they themselves are not what they seem. Edith begins to see ghosts and is haunted by dreams and visions that portend of something dangerous for her. It isn't so much that the ghosts are trying to harm her as that they're trying to warn her. Both Thomas and Lucille do little to calm her as they begin to cast doubt of her state and so on.
The story is less about the horrors within the house as it is the horrors within the human heart. The relationship between Hiddleston and Wasikowska is doomed from the start, that much is certain. So to we know Chastain and Hiddleston's intentions for her character aren't all what they seem and that the house itself plays some part of it. The film is a richly told, gloriously designed romance that is elegant in how it's told and how it looks. Del Toro's keen eye for production design, costume, colouring and cinematography give Crimson Peak a wondrous, almost giallo-like flavour to it. The intense use of colour, combined with the ornate and decadent surroundings makes Crimson Peak feel like a BBC period drama if it was directed by Dario Argento.
That might sound cool and, in fairness, it is. Crimson Peak is all about style and about how beautiful director Guillermo Del Toro can make each scene look. The camera soaks up all the crumbling beauty of Crimson Peak and the drenched colours add to the heightened sense of drama that's on show. Tom Hiddleston plays the sort of role that Timothy Dalton did back in the '70s, that of the tragic romance hero with a dark past whilst Wasikowska's ability to bring forth a real innocent presence is arresting. Jessica Chastain, meanwhile, is a little bit over-the-top as the clearly plotting Lucille whilst Charlie Hunnam barely figures in the story at all. The real star of the show is Crimson Peak itself, as the film acts as a character in and all of itself. The ghosts that populate it are intriguing and original and each new setting begs you to drink in all the faded splendour of it.
Where the film falters, as such, is that it's being marketed as a horror. It's not. Crimson Peak is not a horror in the same way Pan's Labyrinth is not a horror. So once that's set to one side and we can take it for what it is - a period drama / romance with ghosts in it - Crimson Peak works very well. The setting is beautiful and lush and the story, although it might not make a whole lot of sense upon close examination, serves as a platform to show us gorgeous scenery and some very affecting performances. Couple that with a stirring score and Oscar-contender costumes and it's all very much a stately, handsome affair.