By Nick Anstett
Towering, aging mansions stretch out from beautiful British countrysides. Ghosts stalk the halls. Men and women fall in love while hiding secrets and knives behind their backs. Gothic horror is the genre that birthed almost all of the contemporary scare fests. Before the slashers swung their machetes or the aliens lifted their bulbous heads, romance and twisting corridors haunted people’s dreams. Writer and director Guillermo Del Toro attempts to resurrect this forgotten genre in the entrancing and operatic “Crimson Peak.”
Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) fancies herself as an American Mary Shelley. The daughter of a wealthy publisher, Edith desires little out of life but to finish her manuscript despite the protestations of her close friend Dr. Alan Michael (Charlie Hunnam). This all changes when a charming Baronette Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) arrive from across the seas. They bring with them promises of fortune and mystery. However, as Edith’s affection for Thomas grows, supernatural warnings of a creeping doom grow all the more prevalent.
“Crimson Peak” wears its gothic inspiration on its sleeve. Its aspirations of restoring a lost art of scaring might as well be stamped across its posters as a mission statement. Del Toro slips in sly literary references into the script just to assure us of this with Shelly and Arthur Conan Doyle both evoked by name. “Crimson Peak” also fluctuates between success and failure due to its commitment or perhaps non-commitment to genre.
On a surface level, “Crimson Peak” plays with its inspiration expertly well. Flowery prose and descriptions of naturalistic environments from Gothic novels are substituted with stellar costume and set design. The Sharpe manor in particular is a gorgeous and surreal piece of creative film making with its dreamlike architecture and subtle inconsistencies. Del Toro also smartly plays with color as he highlights different characters and locations with different hues and distinguishes ghosts with wax-like red spectral exteriors. It’s hypnotizing even as it grows progressively upsetting and disturbing.
Character emotion and relations are also given the heightened and exaggerated portrayal that can be found in most gothic horror works. “Crimson Peak” is just as much a twisted romance as it is a phantasm murder mystery. Hiddleston crafts Thomas Sharpe into a corrupted Byronic hero not unlike “Jane Eyre’s” Edward Rochester. His alluring and charming disposition hides secrets and chaos, and it plays well into the genre archetype Del Toro has crafted for him. Similarly, Chastain attracts the watcher’s attention as Thomas’s unpredictable and calculating sister. She steals every scene she is a part of through her steely-eyed gaze and her predatory movements. Both Chastain and Hiddleston are able to match Del Toro’s heightened and exaggerated dialogue and plot movements with skill, and it makes the sibling relationship and its inherent mystery the film’s initial draw. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Wasikowska who, despite her strong chemistry with Hiddleston, struggles with some of the more operatic melodrama inherent in the script.
Given the film’s commitment to its genre, it is ultimately disappointing to see the gorgeous design work and creeping romantic undertones give way to what is more or less a conventional shocker in its third act. “Crimson Peak” battles routinely with an undercurrent in its attempts to marry 19th century literature with contemporary cinema in terms of style. Even when the film is working its best, there is something strangely uncomfortable and at odds with itself about its execution. It feels almost as if Del Toro lacks trust in its capability to work on its own even as enamored as he may be with “Crimson Peak’s” inspiration material. The further the film strays from its genre birthing point, the more apparent its stumbles in its earlier execution it becomes. The result is something that resembles more of a beautifully designed, blood soaked, melodrama rather than a true gothic horror piece.
“Crimson Peak” never quite betrays its intentions, but struggles enough in its execution that it is hard not to become disappointed in its failings. There is obvious directorial, design, and acting talent on display in leaps and bounds, but the results fall short, slipping on a blood stained marble floor just as it raises its arms with malice.