In “Crimson Peak,” Guillermo del Toro unifies his two primary impulses: toothy ghost story and oversized studio spectacle. The hallmarks of gothic romance provide a starting point, but del Toro makes this telling very much his own through splashy sensory overload. This grandiose film is visually and emotionally ripe, to the point that juices nearly sweat off the screen.
The film itself states this is not a ghost story, but rather a story with ghosts in it. “Crimson Peak” is built on the bedrock of a Bronte-esque relationship, with the typical underlying hints of violence and treachery embellished and amplified. Ghosts emerge from beneath floors and stalk shadowy hallways, but the most dangerous creatures are the humans, who occasionally commit gaspingly intense bursts of violence. Never entirely satisfying as a drama, “Crimson Peak” is visually dazzling, boasting lively and at times even transfixing performances that keep the story’s blood flowing.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an industrialist’s daughter and an aspiring writer. Indifferent if not entirely immune to the charms of a young doctor (Charlie Hunnam, far more effective here than in “Pacific Rim“), Edith falls for Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Sharpe has traveled from England to Edith’s Buffalo, NY home, seeking capital to finance an invention to leverage his family homestead’s sole natural resource.
Sharpe and Edith have a rocky courtship, thanks to the intercession of the young woman’s perceptive and hard-nosed father (Jim Beaver). The couple are soon married and jet off to the ancestral Sharpe home, a towering, crumbling manse built upon a seeping mound of blood-red clay in which Sharpe’s icy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) holds sway as a domineering matriarch.
That mansion is the film’s centerpiece: it’s a grand patchwork of sets in which no period detail has been overlooked and no opportunity to deepen the atmosphere has been missed. Leaves drift down from the ruined roof above the grand foyer; moths flutter through rooms and corridors; the basement features a set of giant vats full of the crimson clay; a portrait of the Sharpe family’s late matriarch dominates the sitting room.
The construction of the tale is almost gleefully contrived. The Sharpe siblings are suspect from the start, and the idea of their home standing on clay that stains snow blood-red in winter is charmingly ridiculous in a Hammer horror manner (Even the heroine appears to be a homage a such, with the Cushing surname seemingly a reference to Hammer mainstay Peter Cushing). We’re never allowed to settle into the idea that things might be OK with Edith’s charming goth suitor Edward; stray bits of dialogue emphasize that the young woman should keep her eyes open for duplicity from her new family.
Then there’s the matter of the film’s opening scene, in which Edith as a child is given a warning from her mother’s ghost: “beware crimson peak.” It’s as if del Toro enjoys the setup, but really wants to get to the payoff.
But that setup is enjoyable. While del Toro tends to push things just a hair too close to the cartoonish, the first-act dance of character establishments is surprisingly charming. Credit the primary cast for embracing the story’s gothic quirks. Watching Chastain scowl from the sidelines towards the courtship between Hiddleston and Wasikowska is practically a spectator sport, and I found myself wanting much more of Hunnam’s good-hearted doctor.
Even so, del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins don’t give the beginning stages of romance quite enough time to bloom, and there’s reason to question just what Edith sees in Sharpe. He flatters her writing, but after that early flirtation, “Crimson Peak” relies on the ample charms of Hiddleston and Wasikowska and the film’s own spectacular production design to keep the drama afloat.
The efforts of the cast and del Toro mesh to consistently increase the weight of secrets and suspicions that form a connective web around these characters. Soon enough, it’s not love that connects anyone, but the sticky unresolved mysteries no one is able to walk away from. The film is one great growing crescendo, which threatens to stall out as the audience puts all the pieces together. But just when “Crimson Peak” is about to deflate, del Toro deploys a bit of stock-in-trade violence, and the energy crackles once again.
One surprising disappointment, especially after the wildly accomplished CG of “Pacific Rim,” is the digital work. “Crimson Peak” is rich in real-world detail, from the elaborate costumes to the delightfully baroque mansion, but the ghosts haunting the halls look out of place. del Toro has said that the makeup for supernatural characters is as practical as the sets, but every spectre has a glossy CG sheen, and ghosts look like plastic casts freshly extracted from a mold. The designs are nightmarish, but their impact is dulled by the sense that they’re not quite part of the rest of the film’s world.
Perhaps the unification of the director’s impulses in “Crimson Peak” isn’t quite complete after all, but as a summation of Guillermo del Toro’s style and tendencies, the film stands as more of an ur-document of his interests and personality than we have seen before. [B]