Guillermo del Toro has an amazing gift for mixing the grotesque and the gorgeous. And his latest film Crimson Peak, out today, takes that visual panache to a brand new height. With every shot, del Toro overloads our senses more and more, until madness beckons.

Incredibly minor spoilers ahead. Like, seriously, don’t worry about it.

Crimson Peak looks, at first glance, like a horror movie, but it’s more of an old-fashioned melodrama with supernatural elements. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith, a young aspiring novelist who’s being courted by a young doctor (played by Charlie Hunnam.) But then a dashing British nobleman, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) shows up and sweeps Edith off her feet. And soon enough, Edith is entangled with Sir Thomas—and his scary, intense sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

Edith’s relationships with the men in the film are sort of interesting, but her rivalry with Lucille, who wants to be the only woman in her brother’s life, is the heart of the movie.

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To some extent, Crimson Peak is about all the worst things that can happen once a narrative passes the Bechdel Test. (There have to be two named female characters, and they have to have a conversation about something other than a man.) This is probably the second del Toro movie to pass that test, after Pan’s Labyrinth. The battles of wills and wits between Edith and Lucille are infused with a potent malice, thanks to intense performances from Wasikowska and especially Chastain. There’s a lot of cracking great dialogue, as well as subtext as thick as a witch’s brew.

It’s not giving anything away to say that there’s a supernatural element in Crimson Peak. But it’s not what you expect, and the fantastical devices are used with fairly surgical precision. They play one very specific role in the story, and don’t intrude outside that, and the result is a supernatural story like nothing you’ve seen before. The paranormal storyline also provides the one genuinely startling moment in the film’s otherwise predictable third act.

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(In fact, more than Pan’s Labyrinth, this film feels like a companion piece to Mama, the weirdly touching horror film that del Toro produced in 2013.)

And meanwhile, the actual star of the film is Allerdale Hall, the ancestral home of the Sharpes—a stately home so dilapidated, Edgar Allan Poe would have turned up his nose at it.

The terribleness of Allerdale Hall, in its seclusion and its disrepair, provide plenty of opportunities for del Toro to explore the loveliness in grotesqueness and decay. Del Toro dwells on the house’s ornate furnishings and strange decorations. The house is literally caving in and also sinking slowly into the ground, which is made of an obscene red clay that seeps up into everything so that the very earth appears to be bleeding. And there are ginormous, noisy, gossamerrific moths clinging to all of the crumbling walls. To add to the creepy loveliness, Hiddleston’s character has carved horrible mechanical clowns out of wood, and they’re all over the place. And because Hiddleston’s character is an inventor, there are weird steampunk machines everywhere, too.

Basically, in this movie all of the late Victorian and Edwardian tropes are turned up to 11 billion. Think of an unsettling story idea from the late 19th or early 20th century, and you’ll find that del Toro has put it under a huge magnifying glass.

It’s this onslaught of lovely-but-dreadful images that, cumulatively, creates a sense of encroaching madness and mind-boggling beauty.

To add to the visual overload, del Toro never seems to center anything. Whenever you see a majestic arch, a big doorway, or a towering structure, it’s always slightly to the left or the right of the frame. He pans through his beautiful sets at an odd angle, and often his camera wobbles back and forth as it advances, and there’s seldom much symmetry, either.

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Meanwhile, I’m in love with the color palette in this film. You sort of expect a film with “Crimson” in the title to be dominated by red hues, and there is rather a lot of that in the film’s second half. But especially in the first half of the movie, del Toro keeps the film to a restrained sepia tone, exactly like the color of old photos. And yet, occasionally, he brings a highlight of bright gold or red out of that sepia—like Edith’s golden dress in some scenes, or Lucille’s red flower. A few splashes of color pop out of the generally brownish scene in a dramatic fashion. And when the supernatural first appears, it’s accompanied by a greenish light, almost like an absinthe bottle, and that green tinge keeps appearing at odd moments in the backdrop throughout the film.

Horror famously uses the tension between foreground and background to startle you and create a sense of nervousness. And there are definitely some great shots in Crimson Peak where Edith is in front of the camera, staring pensively into the distance, while someone (or something) darts around in the far background. But also, the use of color and lighting in this film make the background not just sinister but fascinating, so that your eye is always drawn to those ornate shapes behind the characters.

And meanwhile, the musical score in Crimson Peak is incredibly effective—actually, there are two different scores, which are constantly at war. There’s a big, sentimental, swelling orchestral score, which comes in whenever the film embraces romance and optimism. And then there’s a sinister, plinking piano score (often just one high note played percussively, over and over) which breaks in at moments of tension. In effect, these two conflicting musical styles reflect the slowly escalating hostility between Edith and Lucille (who also plays the piano a lot.)

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As I said at the start of this review, Crimson Peak isn’t really a horror film—but what it has in common with horror movies is the focus on survival rather than relationships. I didn’t really find myself caring too much about Edith’s love life, or any of the other emotional touchstones in the film—but I cared a lot about whether she made it out of this story alive. If you think of Crimson Peak as a love story, you’re probably going to be disappointed; it’s more of a romance in the 19th century sense than the modern-day sense.

There are also other themes in Crimson Peak—like the tension between the modern era and ancient traditions, as represented by that tragic old house. And the power of creativity and imagination—one of Edith’s main superpowers is that she’s an aspiring novelist, and this allows her to observe people more keenly. And the difference between love stories and ghost stories, and which sort of story Edith is better off writing (or inhabiting.) Plus this film very much wants to be about social change and decadence and privilege, but I’m not sure it ever quite gets there.

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In the end, Crimson Peak is pretty compelling as a gothic melodrama, complete with brutal crimes and mysterious apparitions. Watching Tom Hiddleston as a tormented aristocrat and Jessica Chastain as his scheming sister is the sort of thing that makes you glad to be alive in the early 21st century. But the power of that story is far outstripped by the overwhelming effect of Crimson Peak’s creepy imagery, which reaches such a saturation point that it tells a far deeper story. One of decay, and squalor, and the magnificence that you can find in their midst.


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming in January from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.

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