If you haven’t yet seen Crimson Peak, I strongly recommend checking it out in IMAX while it’s still playing in that format. Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror film makes inspired use of the large screen, employing it to enhance the towering mise-en-scene and chilling atmosphere. Whereas many other films presented in IMAX use the format to present things like mountains and skyscrapers—which would appear gigantic regardless—the spectacle of Crimson Peak lies in the transformation of gothic architecture into something more imposing and spectacular. The crumbling manor where much of the action takes place is its own character, its mysteries as tantalizing as any secret harbored by the human subjects. Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen invite viewers to get lost in the surroundings, employing lots of low-angle shots that force viewers to look up at the high ceilings and cavernous rooms. This inspires empathy with the heroine (Mia Wasikowska), who comes to the manor about halfway through the film but doesn’t discover its secrets until it’s almost too late.
The aesthetic strategy also serves to make the film’s Edwardian setting seem more mysterious than the present. One of the distinctive things about Crimson Peak is that it takes place in the past without being a film about the past. The characters’ behavior isn’t meant to serve as a lesson about social codes in the Edwardian era—rather del Toro makes it seem relatable to a contemporary viewership, and this makes the film’s mysteries seem more immediate. We discover them with the characters, not through a filter of historical curiosity. The approach reminded me of one of my favorite period pieces, James Whale’s The Great Garrick (1937), which takes place in the 1700s but is more concerned with the behavior of actors than with the influence of the period on that behavior. In both films one recognizes character traits that are timeless—in the case of Crimson Peak, those traits include morbid curiosity and a certain pride in one’s social standing.
The owners of the manor, siblings Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), feel bound to their environment because it’s the only real thing they own. At the start of the film, they’re out of money and looking for investors to fund Thomas’s new invention, a tall device that mines the grounds for red clay they can sell to brick makers. (The invention looks especially commanding in IMAX.) Thomas marries Edith (Wasikowska) after getting some money out of her wealthy father, who mistrusts the siblings for reasons he can’t pinpoint. He then takes Edith home to the manor, where she soon sees ghosts. The remainder of Crimson Peak charts headstrong Edith’s investigation of the siblings and their spooky home. As rendered by del Toro and his creative team, each hallway and drawer seems to harbor some horrible secret, making her process seem positively immersive.