A silly and gaudy Gothic romance run through a horror ringer, Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is an ode to extravagant sets and unnerving settings. This 2015 motion picture doesn’t have a subtle bone in its body, but it doesn’t have to. Del Toro, together with his fellow screenwriter Matthew Robbins, has concocted a reeling funhouse of absurdity and it works in spite of its screeching fever.
Crimson Peak bends into Daphne du Maurier terrain with its affection for mood and its ogling paranormal entities. But del Toro’s film is also part soap, with hot overtures of farce and marriages that aren’t what they seem. The cast is game and the Fernando Velázquez score is too, earning every swelling moment while Thomas E. Sanders’ production design nudges to the front of the line.
The audience is introduced to Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a would-be author and the daughter of American businessman Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). She is visited by the apparition of her mother, who gives her a warning she doesn’t understand. Later, she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). He’s an English inventor looking to get Carter’s help with his clay-mining business.
Thomas and Edith eventually become romantically involved and Carter eventually becomes dead, which leads to wedlock. Thomas moves Edith into Allerdale Hall, a tumbledown manor he lives in with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). The mansion sits atop a red clay mine. Lucille is standoffish and Edith soon starts seeing ghosts again.
Del Toro has little interest in restraint or subtlety and he fills every frame of Crimson Peak with something. Allerdale Hall is a swarming fixer-upper with hair-raising hallways, something ripped from the five-cent bodice rippers of old and given fresh, bleeding grain. The red clay seeps through the floorboards; the snow and rain drizzles down through a hole.
Del Toro sinks his characters into this rather obvious chamber of horrors and lets loose, generating more than a few twinkling homages to Hitchcock’s Notorious and the fantastic The Innocents from Jack Clayton. He has a bit of fun with the spinning influences, charming out a Gothic tale while sneaking some red ghosts down the hall.
And Crimson Peak is (mostly) fun in its kitchen-sink sort of way, with the splaying silliness producing pure camp value. By the time the two women are knives-out in the bleeding snow, the entertainment value has blown the doors off the mansion and has broken into the real world. It’s crazy, stupid stuff.
Wasikowska isn’t overly interesting as Edith, a woman so in line with Mary Shelley that she even name-drops the author. It’s too bad that she’s given up too easily when it comes to the romantic stuff, as her fitted introduction plays at the English novelist’s inclination to “create out of chaos.” Wasikowska settles into a ordinary horror foil pattern, sadly.
A raven-haired Chastain steals the show, but one almost longs for a darker walk on the sinister side. Her character is a detached ball of clichés and it’s not surprising that she uses tea as the canal to her desires. She is the lifted Madame Anna Sebastian of the piece, only with a penchant for a little of the stabby-stabby.
As for Hiddleston, he kind of disappears. His character lacks animation and he gets lost in the cavities of Allerdale Hall, but there are reasons behind his equivocation. His counterpart is Charlie Hunnam’s Dr. McMichael, who is far too dull for a movie this manic.
There isn’t much dread or terror in Crimson Peak, but that doesn’t matter much. There is a lot of wild clutching, with sudden bursts of graphic violence and plenty of Victorian velvet to add to the fire. There are ghosts on the boundaries, too, and there is pure exaggeration bursting from the veins of the Big House. And there’s blood, prowling beneath and bucketing above in gushes of beautiful lunacy.