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Crimson Peak is a story about a young woman who wants to write gothic stories with ghosts and murders, and instead finds herself caught up in just such a story. The movie begins with Edith Cushing describing how she saw the ghost of her mother as a child. The spirit came to her with a warning to "beware of Crimson Peak". The movie then jumps forward (the main events take place around the turn of the 20th century) and shows Edith attempting to break into the world of writing. The editor compliments her feminine handwriting, then rejects her story. Edith decides to type the story and take a pseudonym to disguise the fact that she is a woman from future editors. While at her tycoon father's office, she meets a visiting foreigner who has come looking for investors for a machine he has developed to harvest the red clay of his home.
Thomas Sharpe and his sister Lucille have traveled to America hoping that they can get the capital they need to build the machine and restore their family's fortunes. Thomas meets Edith and the two have an immediate attraction. Edith's father isn't happy about this turn of events and hires an investigator to look into the Sharpes' background. Edith again receives a visit from her ghostly mother warning her of Crimson Peak. Edith's father is murdered and she turns to Thomas for comfort, agreeing to marry him. He and Lucille take Edith back to their home in England, a dilapidated manor. It quickly becomes apparent that Lucille doesn't really want her there, and that there is something unnatural going on in the house.
Upon arrival Edith finds a stray dog that Thomas claims he has never seen before. This assertion is soon thrown into doubt as the dog brings her a ball that was inside the house. Edith is told there are parts of the house she cannot visit, and when she finds herself in one of these forbidden areas she discovers luggage with the initials E.S. She begins to see and hear apparitions in the house as well. Meanwhile, an old friend back home has continued to look into the Sharpes. He discovers what their secret is and decides he needs to bring Edith back home before it is too late.
Guillermo del Toro has said this is not a horror movie, but rather a gothic romance that happens to have ghosts in it. I know it is his movie, but I disagree heartily. This movie reminded me greatly of old horror movies from Hammer Films with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, or AIP movies with Vincent Price. It is an old school type of horror film that eschews blood and guts and jump scares for setting a mood, and hitting you with a creepy and disturbing reveal. The ghosts may not be what menaces Edith, but they are scary in their own right. Even the reveal of what is actually happening feels like something from an Edgar Allen Poe story.
While the story feels like a throwback to those earlier movies I mentioned, and it is much slower paced than most modern horror movies, this doesn't mean that it's corny or dated. It is well written, and while you may not have a scare every few minutes the story is worth the wait of watching it unfold. It is wonderfully acted, and Tom Hiddleston proves that he deserves his fame and didn't just get lucky in landing the role of Loki in the Marvel films. While it is a period piece, it doesn't feel pretentious.
There may not be too many surprises, especially for fans of the older gothic horror movies. But the story is well told. The special effects are very good. The meta way with which it plays with common literary devices, and even explains to you what it is doing through discussing Edith's story, is clever and fun. This is the kind of movie that while it won't have you screaming while watching it, you will feel a general sense of unease later at night walking through your dark house. While blood and guts and demons jumping out of the shadows may be what we think of these days when we imagine horror, to me this slower burning, mood setting type of horror is much more effective.