The most admirable element of Guillermo del Toro’s latest flight of fancy might not be the luscious visuals that seem to ooze off the screen, but the sincerity. ‘Crimson Peak’ is a full-on Gothic romance equally in love with both words. The film has ghosts and murders to be sure, but the gorgeous train set runs as much on heightened emotion and visceral reaction.
Undoubtedly, there will be snickers in multiplexes as del Toro unabashedly embraces cheese, yet for those willing to give themselves over to his full-blown fantasy, there’s immense pleasures to be found in the extremes.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith, a big-hearted waif of a heroine that the actress seems to have been physically constructed to inhabit. In a childhood prologue, she’s haunted by the ghost of her mother, which warns of the perils of a mysterious place known as Crimson Peak. In young adulthood, the would-be novelist attempts to sell a ghost story that she’s written and dodges all attempts at love until the charming Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) pops up to lavish her with all his Hiddslestonian charms. Sure, he has a creepy sister (Jessica Chastain) who is clearly trouble from her first appearance, but Edith in love, dammit, and can’t resist!
Eventually, the untimely death of her questioning father shoves Edith into Sharpe’s arms and she sets off to live at his isolated estate in some unsettling moor. His massive mansion is crumbling and sinking into the ground, with all the heavy-handed metaphorical significance that implies. Sharpe is sincere and his sister darkly secretive, so trouble is afoot. Then there’s the other roommate, a ghostly one who appears at night with mysterious malevolence.
‘Crimson Peak’ is a film for those who read one of the iconic Gothic novels by either Bronte sister and felt frustrated by the fact that the vaguely supernatural atmosphere of dread never paid off with overt scares. Not so here, although the Gothic-foreboding-as-metaphor is played up to eleven. It’s almost comical how much symbolism and foreshadowing del Toro crams into every scene, but it’s entirely forgivable given that it qualifies as homage.
The director is of course one of the most obsessive genre geeks in Hollywood, and ‘Crimson Peak’ feels like the filmmaker emptying out every influence and artifact from a certain section of his collection. In addition to all the literary homages, horror nerds will be satiated by direct references to films like ‘The Changeling’, ‘Black Sabbath’, ‘Deep Red’, ‘The Innocents’, ‘The Haunting’, and even del Toro’s own ‘The Devil’s Backbone’, along with countless others. The scenes are essentially a checklist of the history of Gothic horror in addition to a painfully sincere retelling of an old genre.
The bulk of the movie favors subtle scares as del Toro masterfully constructs atmosphere. Costumes are lavish, sets cavernous, colors evocatively symbolic, and the supernatural threat creeps its way through the narrative and up the spine. The director’s use of Mario Bava-style garish lighting and rich primary colors is as beautiful as it is unsettling. While the filmmaker takes great joy in the power of the tease, he delivers plenty of grisly goods along the way, especially in the climax.
The cast all deliver performances as heightened as the cinematic style. They’re decked out in costumes that visibly communicate everything that needs to be known about their mental states in any specific scene and play emotions large and loud. Wasikowska grows from innocent to heroine as per usual, and Hiddleston serves up romance with something sinister always beneath the surface. They’re wonderful, yet it’s Chastain who steals the show. She has the showiest role and del Toro allows her to pitch her performance to the rafters from her introductory frame. It’s unlike anything the actress has done before, and she takes so much delight in the freedom and scale offered by the role that it’s hard not to be charmed by her wicked ways.
Above all else, ‘Crimson Peak’ proves that melodrama need not be a dirty word. There’s very little about the film that’s subtle. Even the creeping sense of atmosphere and suspense is played as big as possible. However, del Toro’s sincerity and love for the history of these types of stories bleeds through every frame so strongly that you can’t help but admire his accomplishments. It’ll be interesting to see how the movie plays to horror hungry crowds during Halloween season. The most extreme moments in the movie may provoke giggles, but it’s also difficult not to get lost in the sumptuous production. It’s definitely a risk to make something this sincere in an ironic age, but clearly worthwhile given the gorgeous results. ‘Crimson Peak’ certainly isn’t a horror movie for everybody, but for those who appreciate a big literary metaphor as much as a gooey gore sequence, the viewing experience will be nirvana.