When I last reviewed a Guillermo del Toro movie, I expressed the fervent wish that he would abandon the thick-eared nonsense he was currently engaged on – in which giant robots repeatedly thumped reptilian monsters in the head – and went back to the kind of cinematic terrain he’d mined so brilliantly in Pan’s Labyrinth. While Crimson Peak isn’t exactly that, it’s about a million miles away from Pacific Rim, which is something to be extremely thankful for.
What we have here is a gothic ghost story and if we’re looking for film precedents, maybe the best of Hammer Horror, as directed by Terrence Fisher or Roger Corman’s 60s interpretations of the works of Edger Allan Poe, might be the appropriate places to look. Crimson Peak is a gorgeous piece of film making – the sumptuous look of the production, the painterly evocations of the settings are a cineaste’s delight, while the story exhibits all the conventions of the true gothic horror story – histrionic and compelling in equal measure.
Aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) (note the tribute to Hammer horror actor, Peter, right there) meets up in New York with baronet and would-be inventor, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and immediately falls under his spell, despite the misgivings of her rich industrialist father, Carter (Jim Beaver). Almost before we can draw breath, Carter has been brutally murdered (a typically Del Toro scene of extreme violence) and Edith is whisked away to Sharpe’s remote Cumbrian family pile, Allerdale Hall, a derelict mansion that makes the Amityville House look like a cabin in Happy Valley. Mysterious Sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, struggling a bit with her English accent) goes along for the ride. The house itself is an extraordinary piece of design, as much a character as any of the human actors, and Edith soon discovers that there are secrets hidden in its shadows – secrets that are being explained by ghostly apparitions.
It’s not quite a perfect production – there are one or two lines of clunky dialogue that invoke involuntary smirks and, like so many other directors, del Toro needs to learn the basic lesson that CGI ghosts are simply not as terrifying as mere actors dressed up in rags and makeup – but this is the kind of filmmaking that hasn’t been attempted in a very long time, and mostly it pays off handsomely. Literate viewers will spot references to Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw and a whole collection of other literary and filmic references, but the best thing about Crimson Peak is the sumptuous look of it. Del Toro’s origins as an illustrator are writ large in every scene. Curiously though, while every imaginable trope of gothic horror is on display here – clockwork dolls, moths, mysterious labyrinths and ghastly spectres – it’s the occasional excesses of physical violence on display that scare us much more than any of the supernatural elements.
This is sterling stuff, though, and should keep del Toro’s legions of fans happy while we wait to see what he will do next.