With his gothic tales of blood soaked fairies, ghosts, and all apparitions in between, Guillermo Del Toro is about as close to a modern day Grimm brother as our generation will be graced with. That’s not to say that his stories are derivative of those original classics. Those tend to use the creatures that make up children’s nightmares to full effect to teach them lessons about adulthood. Meanwhile, del Toro will often employ the horrors of both youth and adulthood in equal measure. Crimson Peak is very much in the tradition of Del Toro’s most acclaimed work, and while it’s certainly masquerading as a horror film to get people into the seats, it asserts itself early on as more of a deranged romance of sorts.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has carried a belief in ghosts from a young age. On the day her mother passed away, she appeared to appear to Edith in spirit form to give her a cryptic warning to “beware of Crimson Peak.” Unsure of exactly what to make of this cautioning, Edith grows up writing ghost stories to very little acclaim, despite the best efforts of her industrially minded father Carter (Jim Beaver) to support her. Then, a mysterious blessing arrives in the form of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a young inventor keen on making something of himself who takes an extreme liking to Edith. Despite the extreme suspicions of her childhood friend Alan (Charlie Hunnam), and father (who winds up dead fairly soon after making his opinion known) Edith marries Thomas and follows him and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to his home, which as she soon comes to find out, is the very Crimson Peak she was warned to stay away from.
Del Toro always has a knack for fantastic visuals, but through every gorgeous looking frame of this film, he outdoes himself. As the film’s title card aggressively suggests, the world here is modeled after that of a storybook. That is to say that while it does take place in a somewhat realistic world, there is a impressionistic spin on even the smallest details. Every new room or environment looks like a painting, with each detail meticulously crafted to tell a little more of the story. That, along with the rich special effects that are a near perfect blend of practical and CGI, completely draw us into this creepy and often sad world. While this isn’t a scary film in the sense that it’s constantly assaulting the audience with creepiness, it contains a couple deeply disturbing plot elements and is at times incredibly violent. It’s a film that’s charming one minute and tense in another, all of which is due to Del Toro’s rich attention to detail and well-crafted story.
While some of the characters are a bit more rich than others, most of the actors step up to greet Del Toro’s eccentric tone with glee. Hiddleston completely sells Thomas’ earnest drive to be loved, coming off like a puppy dog caught in the middle of a really demented situation. It’s a shame that his chemistry with Wasikowska is a bit off, mostly due to the latter’s fairly plain screen presence. With that said, the Alice in Wonderland star is certainly more charismatic here than she normally is. Edith is easy to care about, a well-judged mix of valuable and inquisitive. However, it’s Chastain who runs away with the show as the psychotic Lucille. From the moment she appears onscreen, she exudes such an icy presence that she’ll even make seats in the theater feel cooler. It’s a fiery, scenery chewing performance that is perhaps even worthy of awards consideration. Meanwhile, it’s a shame that Charlie Hunnam is still struggling with his stiff American accent, as Alan is the only character who falls completely flat under the weight of the former Son of Anarchy’s lack of energy on-screen.
The film does falter a bit in it’s screenplay, somewhat shoddily written by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins. There are moments of dialogue here that are just flat out bad. They mostly involve characters dictating just how much they care for one another in flowery, overly descriptive ways that sound more like dollar store novel prose than movie dialogue. There’s also some fairly self congratulatory conversations at the beginning of the film involving Edith’s writing that sound more like Del Toro preparing the audience for what kind of film this is going to be than organic exposition. There’s a also a bit of a pacing issue, particularly in the first act. A bit too much time spent establishing the relationships and inter-workings of Edith’s father that ultimately don’t matter very much in the grand scheme of the story. It feels like a bit of a dry period piece for a while, but as soon as we get to Crimson Peak, the pace picks up and slows down in a more deliberate way.
While it’s certainly not as fine tuned as some of Del Toro’s other films, Crimson Peak carries on his style very effectively. While perhaps not as much of a traditional ghost story as some will be hoping for, it more than makes up for it with just how rich in atmosphere it is. While it might find itself a bit buried as it tires to compete for a mainstream audience, I suspect that it will develop something of a cult following as it gets discovered on home video. Much like the dusty old books that make up it’s inspiration, it’s well-worth opening if stumbled upon in a collection of other seasoned stories.