When filmmakers pay homage to the movies that inspire them, it tends to yield a lot of deferential proclamations that distract from the work at hand. So it went with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” omnibus, which fueled so many conversations about the gritty exploitation movies that obscured the actual project. Now comes Guillermo del Toro’s exceptionally fun “Crimson Peak,” a vibrant refashioning of gothic romance and blood-soaked horror that injects fresh energy into old-fashioned tropes — even if del Toro insists otherwise.
In an introductory statement circulated to the press before screenings of “Crimson Peak,” del Toro deems his first feature in two years “my attempt to harken back to a classic, old-fashioned, grand Hollywood production in the gothic romance genre,” citing productions such as the forties-era adaptations of “Great Expectations” and “Jane Eyre.” Del Toro, however, operates more in tune with B-movie producer Val Lewton, who used “Jane Eyre” to develop a darkly ambiguous take on the relationship between emotional duress and supernatural events in “I Walked With a Zombie,” a title forced on him by studio executives ahead of the 1943 production. Lewton ostensibly smuggled a sophisticated riff on literary conceits and psychological processes into a discardable assignment. Del Toro operates along similar lines: “Crimson Peak” may borrow from familiar traditions, but it fuses them in an original way.
There’s a distinct self-awareness percolating throughout “Crimson Peak,” starting early on, when Victorian-era aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) expresses her desire to become the next Mary Shelley. Developing a short story inspired by the loss of her mother in her childhood, she asserts, “the ghost is a metaphor for the past.” And so it is throughout “Crimson Peak,” as Edith — whose very last name nods to Hammer Horror regular Peter Cushing — develops an alternately eerie and entertaining portrait of personal baggage manifested in literal terms. Beyond saluting the stories and storytellers who inspire him, del Toro tosses around their ingredients and inspects their appeal.
In the process, he constructs his own Frankenstein’s monster of stitched-together pastiche to reintroduce a certain inspired elegance to the studio-mandated storytelling, and while it doesn’t always hold together, “Crimson Peak” offers a welcome mashup alternative to conventional scares.
Ultimately, “Crimson Peak” turns into a gothic riff on “The Honeymoon Killers,” with Edith being seduced by the charming Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who takes her under wing after she’s abruptly orphaned. Brought to a remote mansion in snowy northern England, Edith finds herself holed up with Thomas and his steely-eyed sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, in a delightfully nefarious turn) along with any number of ghastly, bloodied specters that crop up in the hallways to freak her out.
Naturally, these visions of the dead point to a dreadful history involving the Sharpes that Edith must slowly uncover by herself. With a series of simplistic jumpscares and a few too many ghostly effects tweeted by CGI, “Crimson Peak” occasionally undercuts the stronger horrific elements that stem from everything we don’t see. But it hits on a satisfactory balance of shock and intrigue with abrupt flashes of violence that intensify the ominous tone.
Plenty of contemporary filmmakers turn to gore as a prop to excite and repulse viewers in equal measure; del Toro injects it with an eye for revitalizing certain classical tropes. The flow of blood in one key sequence erupts into an otherwise clean white palette that syncs up nicely with the painterly contrasts found throughout “Crimson Peak.”
Aided by cinematographer Dan Lausten, with whom del Toro last collaborated to construct the subterranean horrors of “Mimic,” the filmmaker develops a prolonged finale at the decrepit mansion with a blend of minimalism and grand visionary conceits. The ramshackle building, where snow falls through the rafters and a metallic elevator creaks through each floor, sets the stage for a narrative based solely around the mounting tensions between three people.
Though some of the dialogue in “Crimson Peak” sounds false or stilted — just wait until the moment where Thomas tries to get Edith excited about a trip to the post office — the bald-faced artifice is part of the movie’s appeal. There’s a continual sense of deconstruction to each step of this fairly predictable plot, right down to the payoff of the crimson-soaked finale. Above all, with Chastain’s icy stare pitted against Wasikowska’s developing confidence, del Toro has made a feminist inversion of the usual gothic formula in which male desires wind up animating the behavior of the female characters. In another noticeable challenge to Hollywood conventions, “Crimson Peak” lets the ladies run the show, and their final showdown doesn’t disappoint.
It’s hard to glean these appealing variables by simply considering the genre that inspired “Crimson Peak” (or, for that matter, from the confounding neon posters). Instead, one must look to del Toro’s own filmography, which has consistently transformed recognizable components into uniquely enjoyable visions. From the Goya-inspired nightmares of “Pan’s Labyrinth” to the Kaiju monsters of “Pacific Rim,” del Toro never fails to shake up expectations. Beyond its surface pleasures, “Crimson Peak” also confronts the demons of modern entertainment. The movie frightens and surprises us in familiar ways, but at the same time issues a plea for restraint.
“Crimson Peak” opens nationwide on Friday.