Crimson Peak may be the closest we’ll get to seeing inside auteur Guillermo Del Toro’s mind. Like his inspirational home away from home Bleak House, the movie is crammed wall to wall with atmosphere and ideas, most blended from the genre classic that influenced Del Toro. It’s beautiful, it’s clever, it has its share of jumps and scares.
The final dish has moments of great fun, though some flavors overwhelm others from time to time. A little Jane Eyre here, a little Turn of the Screw there, and how about a dollop of Disney’s Haunted Mansion? About the only influence not included in this Frankenstein of a plot is Frankenstein — wait, heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) cites Mary Shelley as an idol, so it’s there. In fact, if not for the opening statement that Edith knows that ghosts are real — and a very early grotesque appearance of one, played, of course, by Doug Jones — the movie leisurely sweeps through what could be just a period romance.
Edith wants to have the very unladylike career of novelist in early 20th century Buffalo, New York. Her father (Jim Beaver), a renowned architect and investor, believes in her dreams, but he seems to be the only one, especially as Edith’s novel features a ghost — which she claims is a metaphor for the past. She remains without literary admirers until the handsome Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) comes to her father looking for an investment in his machine to mine red clay.
His silver tongue and piercing eyes immediately captivate her, but she resists. Sharpe also jumps a little too quickly to praise her book after glancing at some pages, but… it’s Hiddleston, a British romance novel hero if ever one was born. So he has a dark-eyed and grimly ethereal sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who tends to dress in scarlets and blacks. When Sharpe waltzes with Edith, it’s like no one else is in the room.
Ah, but Edith, someone else is always in the room, and when the girl gets swept away after her father’s untimely and gruesome death, it’s never been more true than at Allerdale Hall, the ancestral Sharpe family home.
Built on top of the red clay mines that provided the now squandered family fortune, the rotting mansion has an unfortunate tendency to breathe in the howling winds, squish and ooze red clay when you step on the wrong floorboard, and, oh yes, the walls sometimes appear to be bleeding. It’s every girl’s dream and… Hiddleston.
That red clay is one of Del Toro’s best conceits. Not only does it make everything look scarier (and strangely attract constantly flapping black moths), but it forms the tissue of most of his ghosts, as if spectral forces sculpted their own bodies from the ground. It should be a symbol of creativity and life, but it is only the harbinger of death, even staining the snow red as it seeps up from the ground, earning the estate the nickname “Crimson Peak.”
If only Edith had heeded the warning of her dead mother…
Crimson Peak bleeds gothic romance, and it’s an interesting palate for Del Toro to play in. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen frames every shot beautifully, playing with silent film irises while accentuating hues to pump the colors full of vibrancy. There’s no missing any detail; it’s only that it’s almost too much to take in.
And this is the kind of script that lives or dies by its cast’s ability to sell it. Along with his screenwriting collaborator Matthew Robbins, Del Toro has crafted portentous dialogue that still has the lilt of poetry. Luckily Wasikowska and Charlie Hunnam as her childhood friend/Sherlock Holmes enthusiast speak with mid-Atlantic accents that make the lines sound even more romantic. Hiddleston and Chastain can pretty much sell anything, but here, there’s so much quietly veiled menace, and with Hiddleston, so much inner torture.
Despite its vibrancy, you almost wish that Del Toro could go back in time and shoot this in the 1940s; it would have stood alongside classics like Laura and Wuthering Heights and somehow fit, if not for the occasional fits of gore. That viscera keeps Crimson Peak from feeling quaint, though don’t get me wrong, I appreciate its classicism.
If you’re drawn to Crimson Peak because you liked Pacific Rim, you may be disappointed. While that was a pedal to the metal popcorn movie, this elegaic ghost story fits in more with The Devil’s Backbone in pacing and tone.
It also, unfortunately, reduces Wasikowska to a stereotypical gothic romance heroine after establishing her as a strong female protagonist. Del Toro has to prove Chastain’s line that “beautiful things are fragile,” and for most of the movie, that is what Edith becomes. Yet Wasikowska’s fine porcelain features seem almost ghost-like themselves, and here as in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, she fits right in with the otherworldly with minimal effort.
Like Burton, Del Toro may need a slightly stronger hand in pacing. This film occasionally becomes more about an experience than drawing us into a strong narrative (and at the screening this week was prefaced by an ad for its maze at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights). It happens to all acclaimed directors — they become more interested in the brand that has sprung up around them. Del Toro isn’t quite there yet, but it might be good to see him take someone else’s world and give it a spin to get out of his own head a bit.
Crimson Peak makes for a good thinking person’s Halloween treat. Like a gourmet candy, though, it may still not have as much substance as we’d hoped.