After the blockbuster bombast of the Hellboy series and Pacific Rim, the question was raised of whether or not Guillermo del Toro could translate his mastery of dark fantasy into English. Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the finest modern examples of the genre, and whilst Crimson Peak is not quite as good, it answers the above question in the affirmative with style. At the same time, it also shows that 19th Century literature can make for thrilling cinema, as long as there’s a visually ingenious director at the helm. Influenced by everything from Jane Eyre to Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, with a little bit of Sherlock Holmes, Crimson Peak is not only a fantastic film in its own right, but also an exciting revitalisation of an old-fashioned sort of storytelling.
From the very start, del Toro makes no attempt to disguise his pre-60s cinematic influences. The film is opened and closed by the turning of book pages, and we’re swiftly treated to some bitchy high society conversations, with Mia Wasikowska’s young author Edith Cushing (surely a nod to Hammer Horror legend Peter Cushing) clearly intelligent enough to be above such trivialities. Edith’s manuscript, a story with a ghost in rather than a ‘ghost story’, allows Crimson Peak to stir in a healthy dose of meta to its otherwise traditionally Gothic proceedings. As other characters make their way through the book, their analyses of its characters and themes become obvious self-reflection on the part of del Toro, who manages to weave it deftly into the script without getting too knowing. A good ghost story needs plenty of suspension of disbelief, and the film never sacrifices this to be clever.
Sir Thomas Sharpe’s (Tom Hiddleston) arrival with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) makes life suddenly more exciting for Edith. Thomas, a landed gentleman, causes great offense to a gathering of the American aristocracy by choosing to waltz with Edith, rather than the selection of more ‘eligible’ choices. Soon, he’s swept her off her feet and she’s fallen in love with him. Behind the scenes, though, there are ulterior motives at play. Back in Cumberland, Thomas has almost missed the opportunity of the Industrial Revolution, and is desperately seeking funding for a new clay-mining machine. Edith’s father Carter (Jim Beaver) can provide funding, and it’s very early on that we’re given the hint that the people of Crimson Peak may have iller intents than the ghosts.
Mia Wasikowska’s quiet confidence as a performer makes her the perfect choice for Edith, and her chemistry with Hiddleston, whilst not quite on the level of this year’s best screen couples, humanises Sir Thomas. Hiddleston’s distinct brand of detached charm fits into del Toro’s world far more satisfyingly than in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise. Yet, as good as these two are, they are completely eclipsed by a terrifying Jessica Chastain. Instantly erasing any memories you might have of her as an American, Chastain pulls off the English baroness routine effortlessly, barely suppressed manic rage always simmering at the surface.
Del Toro’s visual prowess is the real star of the show however. Allerdale Hall, the residence of the Sharpes that Edith moves into following her marriage to Thomas, is a masterclass in set design, the creepily gorgeous interiors built from the ground up. Every set, prop, and costume in Crimson Peak is a joy, practical effects used as frequently as possible to give the film a vitally tactile feel. Whether an invisible spirit is forcing open heavy wooden doors, or Edith is stirring the blood-red clay that lies beneath Allerdale Hall del Toro fully understands the importance of grounding your fantasy in tangible reality. In a deliciously macabre touch, the clay seeps through the floorboards; a bleeding wound at the heart of the house. Every area of the haunted mansion has a distinctly different feel, and the luxurious colour palette keeps every sequence fresh. The ghosts themselves are more CGI-reliant than any of their surroundings, but they’re so effectively ghoulish and disgusting that their presence always has a very physical malevolence.
At its heart, Crimson Peak is a romance and a mystery story – kind-hearted doctor Alan McManus (Charlie Hunnam) fancies himself a Sherlockian type – that ghosts just happen to intrude upon. Despite the marketing and some proper scares in the early scenes, this is not a horror film. The finale is hair-raising, but not in the same way that, say, It Follows was. For some, this may prove frustrating, but a romantic Gothic chiller is something far rarer than your standard horror, and I was very glad the film never took the obvious jump-scare route. At points, you’ll find yourself noticing some very silly, even stupid, chunks of dialogue, and though they do stop Crimson Peak from replacing Pan’s Labyrinth as del Toro’s masterpiece, they’re incredibly easy to forgive when the rest of the movie is so beautifully atmospheric.