Director Guillermo del Toro insists that his latest film is a gothic romance, as opposed to a gothic horror, which perhaps explains why the sumptuously-designed ghost story Crimson Peak is lacking in out-and-out scares: there’s a smattering of things going bump in the night, some slightly-chilling wispy CGI spectres and a couple of sudden shocks, but despicable acts of brutality contained herein are the product of our own human propensity for evil, rather than being malpractice carried out by the spirit world. In that respect it shares certain themes with earlier del Toro films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, though fans of those expecting similar quaility here may well be disappointed; in tackling the horrors of Franco’s Spain both of those earlier works have stronger connections with reality, and both are far darker than Crimson Peak.
This particular story draws heavily from the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley, the latter awkwardly namechecked in the script, and could also serve as a kind of updated take on the TV films that made up the Hammer House Of Horror anthology: houses are big, and cold, and draughty; evil is clearly telegraphed by shifty eyes or sideways glances; door handles rattle; floorboards creak underfoot; thunder and lightning appear right on cue throughout; and you’re constantly thinking ‘oh for goodness sake just leave‘ or ‘only an idiot would look behind there’ as Mia Wasikowska’s aspiring American horror novelist Edith Cushing (ha!) stumbles around in her frilly dress. The haunted house where much of the action of Crimson Peak takes place is a particularly foreboding but weirdly beautiful place. It’s crumbling to bits, and there’s a big hole in the roof, through which raindrops and snow constantly fall into the grand entrance hall. There’s an old rickety lift connecting the floors, dozens of rooms including an attic where Gepetto wouldn’t feel out of place, a roaring fire that seems to have a mind of its own and hundreds of butterflies hanging around the walls. Characters are told not to go here, or not to go there, and certain rooms and other objects are locked, indicating the presence of dark secrets behind the doors. Rather disconcertingly the house is also built on land that is rich in crimson-coloured clay, some of which seeps up through the creaky floorboards and stains the snowy exterior, hinting at gruesome acts that have taken place in the past.
Moving to this particularly unwelcoming spot in the Cumberland countryside – now part of present day Cumbria – is Edith’s punishment for her own naivety. The only child of Carter (Jim Beaver), a self-made industrialist and financier, the film opens in the US where she is romanced by English nobleman and owner of said dilapidating country pile Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who arrives in town seeking funding for his pet clay-mining project; joining Sir Thomas is his older sister Lady Lucille, played with a disappointing ever-present frostiness by Jessica Chastain, who can be found tinkling the ivories with a lovely spot of Chopin when she isn’t perfecting her evil stare. It quickly becomes apparent that they have hidden motives involving Edith and the money she will inherit one day from her father.
As you would expect from a del Toro film it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen. Crimson Peak looks fantastic, with stellar production design and art direction by Thomas E. Sanders and Brandt Gordon, lavish sets decorated by Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Viveau, and spectacular costumes by Kate Hawley. Though fairly few in number the large sets are like characters in themselves, and I’m glad I viewed it on an IMAX screen; I was constantly looking at the edges of the frame, and the corners, and felt richly rewarded by all of the detail. It’s also a very colourful piece, with the aforementioned reds complemented by vivid greens and blues, while exterior snowy scenes have this kind of lilac hue as per the picture at the top of this review. And there’s more: within the Sharpe mansion in particular there’s fine use of lighting; it looks like natural light (though of course it isn’t) and the dark nooks and crannies are never too dark. Crimson Peak also sounds good, with effects adding to the atmosphere and splendid foley work, particularly during the violent sequences. So it’s a very impressive production all round, a technical marvel you may even say, although once you get past all of that there’s not really much here at all. It’s a very straightforward chiller-thriller, a ghost story that’s faithful to the gothic style of novel and cinema that has inspired it, but it just lacks a bit of oomph and unpredictability. There’s nothing much there beyond the appearance – which I will reiterate is very impressive in itself – and I’m left wondering whether watching a ‘making of’ would have been more interesting than watching the film itself. Those searching for something unusual – an allegory, perhaps, or an engaging character – will be disappointed. Despite some OK performances the Sharpes and Edith are all quite dull, as is Charlie Hunnam’s knight-in-non-shining-tweed, and you’ll have seen similar a dozen times before, whether we’re talking about horror or, as the director would prefer, within the field of romance. Del Toro certainly gets to grips with the style of the Victorian period and his latest movie looks and sounds great, but it is let down by a disappointing plot that contains a twist most people will see coming a mile off.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro.
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins.
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver.
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen.
Editing: Bernat Vilaplana.
Music: Fernando Velázquez.
Running Time: 119 minutes.