Guillermo del Toro tries his elegant best to shake the cobwebs from a musty old genre but still ends up telling a very traditional and predictable haunted house yarn in Crimson Peak. The gifted fantasy/sci-fi/horror specialist has made a film that’s very bloody, and bloody stylish at that, one that’s certainly unequaled in its field for the beauty of its camerawork, sets, costumes and effects. But it’s also conventionally plotted and not surprising or scary at all, as it resurrects hoary horror tropes from decades ago to utilize them in conventional, rather than fresh or subversive, ways. It’s a thousand times more elaborate and sumptuous than the most recent demented domicile tale of note, The Babadook, but not an ounce as frightening or disturbing. Still, on the basis of anticipated scares and del Toro’s following, Universal should get some potent pre-Halloween business out of this beautifully bedecked Gothic-style melodrama.
If the devil were indeed entirely in the details, del Toro would have a genre classic on his hands. This is clearly a filmmaker who relishes research and enriching his work with deep-dish references; the story’s first half, set in Buffalo, New York, in 1901, practically groans with the sense of a society about to assert itself broadly on the world stage, of the expansiveness of the incipient Teddy Roosevelt era rooted in bold initiative and industriousness.
At the same time, the screenplay by the director and veteran scribe Matthew Robbins is deeply informed by the tradition of both literary and cinematic Gothic melodrama, which in context is used to convey the inbred, diseased and inevitably doomed society of royalty and Old World privilege, here represented by a crumbling manse in rural England, the location of the drama’s second half.
But no matter how richly and skillfully this physically seductive venture transports the viewer into its spheres of interest, one is still left with a film dedicated to a sincere and utterly unironic use of such chestnuts as an evil sister-in-law poisoning her unsuspecting victim via the tea she continually serves her, a spooky house conveniently being situated miles from the nearest neighbor, strict instructions never to descend beneath the house’s main floor, and a frightened heroine (played by an actress who four years ago was the lead in a fine Jane Eyre) continually sweeping through dark rooms carrying a candelabra. All this in a film featuring a leading lady whose first and last words of voiceover are the same: “Ghosts are real. This much I know.”
The one hour of set-up is firmly situated in the real world and is all the better for it. The damsel soon to be distressed is young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), herself an aspiring writer of Gothic melodrama who fancies herself the new Mary Shelley and lives in one of turn-of-the-century Buffalo’s most distinguished homes as the only child of widowed industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), who worked his way up the hard way. Although beautiful and highly eligible, Edith remains by temperament more the bookish recluse and still resists the perennial ardent attentions of childhood friend-turned-handsome young doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam).
Weakening her defenses, however, is newly arrived Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an Englishman who has come, accompanied by his less congenial older sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), seeking American backing for a “clay harvester,” a mining machine that will efficiently do the work it takes many men to accomplish. Seeing right through the effete Thomas’ obsequiousness, shrewd old Cushing (there’s no doubt where del Toro took that name from) takes to calling the fancy man Little Lord Fauntleroy and, noting Lucille’s more pronounced oddness, announces that, “There’s something not quite right about them.” He’s absolutely right and yet doesn’t know the half of it.
When a detective delivers Cushing plenty of dirt on the English couple, the old man pays the ultimate price for his skepticism in a horribly violent murder scene that’s made to look like an accident. Her father’s death and the money leaves Edith free to follow her heart, if not her mind, to England as Thomas’ virgin bride. Unfortunately, Lady Lucille is part of the package — an increasingly big part, in fact, that could be more objectively described as self-anointed jailer and nurse.
This sort of malevolent gatekeeper-of-the-family-secrets character has populated many a fusty melodrama over the decades, and the sexual jealousy and hostility Lady Lucille feels for Edith is nothing new either. Now a prisoner in a cold, dilapidated mansion, Edith must endure encounters with a crawling, grasping black ghost as she sneaks about the house (often with candelabra in hand) discovering secrets and trying to gain any advantage she can over the desperate Lucille, who feels her brother’s affection slipping away from her.
The fine actors on hand all play it straight with absolute conviction in what they’re doing, but the one who best captures the spirit of the times — and plays the one character who sees through the visitors’ ruse — is Beaver, a veteran character actor still not widely enough seen on the big screen.
It’s entirely likely that no previous rendition of this sort of sexually twisted, psychologically degenerative and spectrally haunted fright story has ever been served up with so much stylistic sauce as del Toro has poured onto Crimson Peak, so named for the the red clay that the Sharpe’s family pile, Allerdale Hall, is built upon and which colorfully, and symbolically, contaminates all it touches. The immersive attention to detail in regard to the fanciful props, glorious fabrics, layers of clothing, color coordination, home furnishings, bathroom ceramics, detailed hand craftsmanship, paintings on the walls, the latest inventions and manifestations of turn-of-the-century upper-class life feel compulsive but not fetishistic; to be sure, del Toro insisted upon and coordinated all of this, but special mention must be made of the exceptional contributions of production designer Tom Sanders, costume designer Kate Hawley, cinematographer Dan Laustsen and their staffs. For anyone interested in all-in, full-freight period re-creation, the film is worth seeing for this alone.
Dramatically and even morally, however, Crimson Peak feels like a 1946 film made seven decades later; the conventions are all carried over intact from an earlier time, so that only the technical aspects and gore level identify it as a product of its own era. This is not necessarily a bad thing at all, except that the conventions the film trades in seem so dusty and time-worn that they cry out for revision and/or reconsideration. Del Toro plays it all very straight, so that the only surprise is the lack of same.