Guillermo del Toro will not be mistaken. He’d very much like for his new film, the magnificently wrought Crimson Peak, to not be spoken of as a horror film. On Twitter, he clarified that the film is a “Gothic Romance,” and then compared its tense creepiness to his own dancing, but let’s focus on that first bit for the moment. There’s a scene early on in the film in which a publisher takes a look at a manuscript from novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) and refers to it as a ghost story. Edith gently corrects him, re-branding it as “a story with a ghost in it.” The ghost is a metaphor, she explains. It may be horrifying, but it ain’t horror, not by her count.
So when del Toro invisibly ushers Edith into Allerdale Hall about 20 minutes later and she sees that the once-stately manor has deteriorated to the point that a sagging hole in the roof makes for a decrepit skylight, the girl ought to know a symbol when she sees one. How blest we are that she shrugs it off; if the young woman had a little more common sense, we’d have missed out on this sublimely spooky tale of intrigue; mystery; and yes, high-Gothic romance. Subtract the ghosts, and what remains is an agreeably soapy household tragedy with the knowing camp tinge of Mario Bava’s period ghastlies and the over-the-top emotionality of silent horror (and del Toro’s got the iris shots to match). It all adds up to a gorgeous, tone-perfect haunted house filled with immediate pleasures.
With Crimson Peak, del Toro’s given each of his trio of leading actors a substantial gift. Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, and Jessica Chastain each feast upon their roles in three full courses. Wasikowska continues her career-long winning streak as Edith, a strong-willed daughter of privilege and a writer with the talent and lady-cojones to self-style as the next Mary Shelley. American and proud, she scoffs at the very notion of nobility, but changes her tune when a baronet by the name of Thomas Sharpe (with Hiddleston’s rather dashing face) shows up in town to pitch her father (Jim Beaver) on a machine for mining the blood-red clay on which the Sharpe estate of Allerdale Hall was built. He’s never too far from his sister Lucille (Chastain, having the time of her life), whose quiet intensity masks a secret or five. Edith and Thomas begin a tentative courtship, and it’s not too long until her affection for her new husband compels her to join him when he invites her back to the creepiest house in Britain.
Del Toro simultaneously sticks to his strengths while developing new ones. The man’s flair for immersive art design has been evident for years, but relative even to the mythic grandeur of the hidden world of Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak represents a new high. The crimson clay doesn’t do much of anything, but it provides del Toro with just the excuse he needs to have the walls appear to be perpetually oozing blood. He infuses the film with unearthly menace at every available opportunity, occasionally cutting away from the action to ratchet up the tension with a shot of ants devouring a dying butterfly, or houseflies dying in a table.
What’s more, del Toro maintains a keen awareness of the tone he’s striking at any given moment, and lords over it with a conductor’s specificity. Characters make deliciously ominous statements, the sort of spooky double entendres that could be driven home with a crack of thunder and a pipe organ’s minor chord. Del Toro gracefully waltzes on the line between straight-faced scares and knowing silliness, permitting marvelously outsized performances without shattering the film’s potential to be taken seriously. The script (by del Toro and Matthew Robbins) anticipates problems and corrects them before they can take shape, too; just as it seems his story may get bogged down with exposition, the action shifts into a hallucinatory high gear.
Del Toro’s intricately detailed world, where the gentle scraping of a spoon on a china teacup might as well be the sound of screaming, provides an apt milieu for the deranged romance at the center of the film. Allerdale Hall, a palatial facade rotten on the inside, represents the exact opposite of the film that contains it. Crimson Peak sets out with the disposition of a Grand Guignol horror spectacle, but it gets more twisted and heartily entertaining as del Toro digs deeper and deeper into the twisted, twisty anti-love story that drives the film’s plot. Ghosts jump out and scare audiences, but the wickedness of the human heart can leave an impression that can never be scrubbed away.
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