Recent converts to the skills of fan-favorite director Guillermo Del Toro may swoon at the blockbuster spectacle of a film like “Pacific Rim” which taps into every corner of the geek brain, but others know a good scare is what tickles his fancy. Del Toro’s fascination with the Gothic stretches back a ways, and he embraces that adoration fully with the lavish, ostentatious horror “Crimson Peak”, a film of such bloody good fun it could bring the rarely-used genre back to life.
More of a decadent haunted house story than a ghost story, “Crimson Peak” is a melodramatic, Victorian wonder teasing dangerous romances, hidden secrets, and of course, murder. While these elements are always tantalizingly on the surface, Del Toro transfixes us with rich, baroque images. He’s spared no expense in making this his most beautiful film from top to bottom; from the gorgeous cast to the titular bleeding red mansion that serves as the story’s most unforgettable character.
Mia Wasikowska, who has never met a gothic heroine role she didn’t like (she was amazing in Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre”), plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring novelist who we see as a child encountering the ghostly presence of her deceased mother. The apparition’s warming to “Beware Crimson Peak” lingers on her mind into adulthood, when she remains under the watchful eye of her wealthy industrialist father (Jim Beaver). But neither he nor Edith’s stalwart admirer Alan (Charlie Hunnam) are a match for the chivalrous and enigmatic baronet, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who quickly sweeps her off her feet. A violent, gruesome murder drives Edith further into Sharpe’s arms, and soon they are married and flying off to his ancestral home. That she knows practically nothing about Thomas is, of course, obvious to us, but Edith knows even less about his icy, possessive sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) who lords over the mansion like a mad sentinel.
The house is the film’s glorious centerpiece, a ruined, disheveled Hogwarts with falling leaves from the rotted roof and red sludge oozing through the floorboards like blood from a gaping wound. As Edith explores her creaky new domicile we too are introduced to its every terrifying nook, captured in exacting detail from the fluttering array of moths to the crimson ectoplasmic ghosts that stalk its halls. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins were paying homage to the classic Hammer horrors of years past, and the film certainly captures that grotesquely over-the-top spirit that borders on camp.
Del Toro isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel here; there’s no attempt to hide any of the dangers that threaten poor Edith, but that’s what is so enjoyable about it. It allows a certain level of freedom for the immensely talented cast, especially Chastain who projects scorn and disapproval like no other. Wasikowska and Hiddleston are both somewhat restrained, and their characters’ romance is never given enough time to fully develop before the evil shenanigans begin. She largely plays to her well-practiced strengths, capturing Edith’s innocence and fierce resolve, while Hiddleston is an indecisive rogue with a heart of tarnished gold.
“Crimson Peak” is, in a way, like the culmination of everything Del Toro has done before, embracing his blockbuster tendencies with the frightful horrors he loved growing up. While there aren’t a ton of scares, Del Toro knows how to send a good chill up the spine. His creepier films have always been far and away better than his action-heavy efforts, and hopefully “Crimson Peak” will inspire Del Toro to tap into this side more often.