The most visually sumptuous film of the year, Guillermo del Toro’s (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) haunted house tale Crimson Peak, is one part Edgar Allen Poe and one part Shirley Jackson, buoyed by impressive production design that makes the title mansion as important a character as any human being in the story. While so many of today’s filmmakers make the mistake of leaning on elaborate visuals in lieu of a solidly constructed script, del Toro is far too smart for that, having co-written with Matthew Robbins an intelligent story that manages to inject new life into well-established horror tropes while simultaneously alluding to classic haunted house stories from the past.
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a hopeless romantic at heart, which is reflected in her fiction – stories replete with heroines in need of saving and white knights at the ready. No one would ever accuse the mysterious Englishman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) of being that, yet he does get her attention when he compliments her writing and gives her the sort of attention her characters receive. Having approached her father Carter (Jim Beaver) with an offer to invest in an innovative excavation machine – only to be rebuked – Sharpe delays his return to his English estate, staying in Buffalo to woo Edith instead, something his icy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) seems nonplussed about. And while her father withholds his approval of this potential match, these objections are rendered moot when he’s murdered under mysterious circumstances. Though still grieving, Edith agrees to marry Sharpe, who then takes her to his decrepit, crumbling estate known as Crimson Peak; that his sister, who lives there as well, is less than welcoming is the least of the young woman’s troubles.
Del Toro hardly uses a deft touch here, as it’s obvious the Sharpes have more than a few skeletons in their very large closet. Yet, this is part and parcel of the gothic horror story, and much of the fun Peak contains is in knowing the conventions of the genre and seeing the director allow his veteran cast to wallow in them, deftly walking the line between earnestness and parody. Thankfully, the three principals are up to the task of finding the humanity in their stereotypes and bringing these qualities to the fore. Hiddleston manages to elicit some sympathy for Thomas, who discovers he has a conscience though he’s between a rock and a hard place, while Wasikowska believably takes Edith from naïve pushover to fierce fighter. Chastain, severe in looks, sexy in demeanor, resists the temptation to camp up the obviously evil Lucille, instead dialing things back, rendering her insanity with her feet firmly planted on the ground.
However, the title abode is the true star of the film, and it’s quite something. As the water pipes rattle, the mansion seems to be speaking; as the furnace pipes wheeze, it’s breathing; as its foundation creaks and oozes red clay through its seams, it bleeds and yearns to be put out of its misery. Overseen by production designer Thomas Sanders, this haunted house is a beautifully ornate, densely detailed construction that demands our attention, dwarfing its characters and consuming them, heart and soul.
Unfortunately, the ghosts that inhabit it are not rendered as well. When used sparingly by del Toro – lurking in the shadows, flitting about in the background – they prove effective, suggesting a sense of horror that’s dispelled as soon as they come completely into view. To be sure, they are rendered meticulously with gory details to spare, yet there’s no getting around the fact they’re nothing but pixelated phantoms, making them as scary as a swirling screensaver.
Still, del Toro’s concern is to create an atmosphere of dread, something he does as well as the filmmakers behind horror classics from Hammer Studios and the films of Roger Corman, both of which he references throughout. And while it’s commendable that he give a tip of the hat to those who inspired him, the director has no reason to do so in the future. He’s making his own mark on the genre, which will surly motivate future filmmakers who appreciate his brand of nightmare.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.