Full disclosure: I’ve never seen a Guillermo del Toro film I haven’t grown to adore. From his smaller films like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth to his big-budget Hollywood projects such as Hellboy and Pacific Rim (and even a few rocky moments in between Mimic and Blade 2), I’ve always found a lot to love in this man’s clever, earnest approach to suspense, action, horror, and dark fantasy. So obviously there was much excitement over the news that del Toro was about to tackle ghost stories, haunted houses, and old-fashioned Gothic romance in Crimson Peak.
And while part of my enthusiasm for the final product may stem from my affection for del Toro in general, the simple truth is that Crimson Peak is packed to the creaking rafters with stuff that longtime (dare I say “older”?) horror fans will absolutely love. The plot is sort of like Rebecca (1940) meets The Haunting (1963). It’s 19th century England, and a lovely young woman named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) has fallen for the charms of a dashing stranger known as Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), much to the chagrin of her potential lover Dr. McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) and Thomas’ domineering sister (Jessica Chastain). The aspiring author quickly moves into the Sharpes’ overwhelmingly eerie mansion, and that’s when all sorts of skeletons start falling out of various closets.
At first it’s plainly obvious that Thomas and sister Lucille are up to no good… but what is it that they want from poor, naive Edith? Why is the newcomer forbidden to explore certain parts of the mansion? Is Edith being threatened by the undead, or are they trying to tell her something important? And why is Thomas so endlessly moody, stressed out, and miserable? While many of the characters and plot threads will no doubt feel comfortably familiar, the screenplay (by Mr. del Toro and frequent collaborator Matthew Robbins) does manage to throw a few nice surprises into the mix — several juicy dialogue exchanges get decidedly nastier as the tensions escalate.
The set-up is strong, the follow-through is satisfying, and the third act is packed with darkly amusing moments, but Crimson Peak‘s strongest assets lie in the audio/visual department. Not only are the three leads pitch-perfect in their emulation of archetypal Gothic characters, but the art direction, production design, and cinematography employed here are nothing short of staggering. Though it’s cliché to say, the Crimson Peak mansion does start to feel like a character of its own. It’s also one of the most powerfully beautiful haunted houses you’ll ever see. From the smallest of props to the most ornately arcane hallways imaginable, “Allerdale Hall” is not merely a character. It’s a wonderfully creepy universe.
As usual, del Toro brings a palpable sense of passion and affection to the proceedings. The dialogue is pulpy, but never silly. The score is dark and moody, but also playful. The actors (particularly Ms. Chastain) each get a few chances to vamp it up, but nobody goes too far over the top. The film is clearly a love letter to a type of “outdated” genre film we don’t see all that much these days, but then it also cuts loose with a few moments of nasty violence, just to keep the viewer on their toes. Crimson Peak works as a doomed romance, an effortlessly compelling haunted house story, and a juicy genre vehicle for some very good actors.
Considering that the vast majority of horror films are geared towards the youngest audiences possible, it’s refreshing to come across one that’s made with grown-ups in mind. Crimson Peak represents the finest sort of homage; it evokes and emulates a wide array of disparate influences, but it also exhibits its own sense of freshness and originality. It’s also pretty scary, a little sexy, and almost painfully beautiful to look at.
Perhaps one day I’ll come across a Guillermo del Toro film I dislike, but it sure as hell won’t be today.
5 Ghostly Burritos Out of 5
IMAGE: Legendary Pictures