Overripe and melodramatic, Crimson Peak finds master genre fabulist Guillermo Del Toro whooshing away from the clanking tincan adventure of his summer popcorn flirtation Pacific Rim to what may be that film’s polar opposite: a grand, ornate, sometimes wobbly but never-less-than-entrancing Gothic horror love story, a misty, plummy blob of lush, purple romanticism about the ghosts of the past — both figurative and literally. Though it teeters on the brink of absurdity and even outright failure at times, Del Toro’s bold, idiosyncratic experiment in period nightmarishness ultimately finds its footing to become an all-too-rare modern example of big, gorgeous, grandiloquent genre spectacle.
A love letter to our horror past — from fog-enshrouded period pieces like The Innocents to the color-saturated operas of violence perpetuated by the likes of Dario Argento and Mario Bava to the genre-defining literary work from the likes of Mary Shelley — Crimson Peak is a far cry from the generic, boo-rattle-bump-in-the-night shriekiness of contemporary spookshow haunted house cinema. At times violent and beautiful, methodically paced and devoted to Sirkian melodrama and twisted revelations, is not the cheap horror film many will expect; that may prove disastrous to its immediate box office, but will pay off in cult film dividends — even if Del Toro’s flamboyant, go-for-broke attitude threatens to off the rails as often as it succeeds as pure, mad, voluptuous cinema.
Del Toro has said that his film isn’t horror but “Gothic romance” — basically he’s saying it’s Wuthering Heights with boogeymen. Mia Wasikowska gives her best Deborah Kerr as Edith, a bookish, tart-tongued and very independent young turn-of-the-century woman. More concerned with following in the footsteps of Mary Shelley and becoming a writer (despite that many of the publishers she meets expect her to be Jane Austen) than getting married, scoffing at the idea of romance, but believing wholeheartedly in the presence of the otherworldly (how could she not, having been haunted by the creepy, dessicated ghost of her mother as child, warned with the vague pronouncement “Stay away from Crimson Peak”), Edith nonetheless finds herself falling for the charms of Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a British baronet visiting Boston to find funds to build a steampunk chain contraption designed to easier dig lucrative red clay from the grounds surrounding his family estate. After a whirlwind courtship the two marry — much to the chagrin of Edith’s suspicious father (Jim Beaver), a besotted male friend (Charlie Hunnam) and Thomas’ strangely menacing own sister (Jessica Chastain.)
Edith is whisked off to Britain and the family home — the gorgeously decrepit and grand titular mansion she was warned about those many years ago. A marvel of production design, with strange knotty corridors, plush violet, green and black coloring and a fire-orange basement of burbling vats of red clay, Crimson Peak, the home, is simultaneously foreboding, mysterious and rapturous, and Edith soon finds that as she wanders the halls she is privy to the skeletal literal ghosts that haunt its hall.
As gorgeous as Crimson Peak is, Crimson Peak itself stumbles in its second act. An act of surprisingly brutal violence notwithstanding, the film is more concerned with limning the love story between Edith and Thomas than in scaring the audience. That proves to be a modest, but almost fatal, mistake, undercut by the chilly lack of chemistry between Wasikowska and Hiddleston and Del Toro’s stiff attempts at eroticism. (Style comes easy to the director; sex does not.) The ghost scenes, a combination of practical and CGI effects, are well-staged, but are neither scary nor consistent enough to burrow under the skin, haphazardly placed here and there to remind you that you are not just watching an overstuffed Merchant-Ivory film.
It feels as though Crimson Peak is about to become an eccentric misfire for an eccentric director — not necessarily a good film, but delightfully, if falteringly, individual one — but then Del Toro turns the corner and shows his true hand. One is loathe to spoil the movie’s twists — and they are hardly earth-shattering ones anyway — but what you think was one kind of film turns into another one, a masterfully perverse and eye-popping fandango. Del Toro revs the film up into pure, unadulterated, delicious madness, far away from the stately ghost story one might have expected. For a while there, Crimson Peak teeters on the brink of disappointment only to emerge into the light of batshit greatness.
Much of the success of the film resides on the cast and the craftsman behind the project. Lack of chemistry aside, Hiddleston and Wasikowska are ideally cast, Wasikowska for her particular brand of paradoxically steely frailness, a wispy outer quality concealing a solid inner core, and Hiddleston for his complex, snaky charm. But the film is stolen by Chastain, haughty, slit-eyed perfection in a Bette Davis role of shimmering, barely-concealed psychosis. (If anyone is miscast, it’s Beaver, a little too gruff to convince as a period businessman.)
But Crimson Peak itself. My god. No horror film this year — hell, no film this year — will match the visual splendor, the tactile physical poetry of this abode. Ghosts and all, you want to live in the world of Crimson Peak. Stylistically speaking, it all but confirms that Del Toro is the modern master of genre filmmaking, the heir apparent to the likes of Argento and Bava. Colors dark and bright pop…and so do the eyes, caressing every texture in the film. You want to frame this movie on your wall. Even if you don’t groove to the mad, teetering spinning top that is Del Toro’s attempt at period romance, then you have to admit that Crimson Peak might just be the most gorgeous horror film of the decade.