Candles splutter and claret flows in Crimson Peak, director (and co-writer) Guillermo del Toro’s splashy love-letter to the classics of gothic horror.
A mile-wide river of the macabre has always flowed through del Toro’s work, from his ornately drawn vampire debut Cronos, via his giant bug B-flick Mimic to the ickier moments in his most recent movie, Pacific Rim. But even more so than The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s last excursions into horror, Crimson Peak clearly expresses the filmmaker’s affection for Hammer’s output, Roger Corman’s Poe cycle, as well as such literary touchstones as Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights and The Turn Of The Screw.
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith, the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist. Edith has designs on becoming a novelist, yet a publisher mocks her first manuscript for its supernatural overtones; little does Edith know that she’ll soon be drawn into a horror story of her own. The nightmare begins when Edith is swept off her feet by Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a dashing young nobleman with more than a hint of the night about his features. More sinister still is his sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who specialises in playing baroque melodies on the piano and wearing billowing red gowns.
Despite the objections of her father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), Edith leaves for England to start a new life with Thomas at his ancestral home in Cumbria – the not-at-all ominous looking Allerdale Hall. Lucille watches the newlyweds’ every move with a jealous eye, while the smoky wisps of ghosts lurk in every corner. The house is seemingly bursting with hellish secrets; its very foundations ooze with the blazing red clay from which the godforsaken place takes its nickname: Crimson Peak…
Beautifully designed from the opening frame, Crimson Peak is drenched in rich colour akin to old Technicolor film stock. Like Nicolas Roeg’s swoonsome cinematography in Masque Of The Red Death, or the delirious splashes of colour in Dario Argento’s Suspiria, del Toro’s film is all burnished bronzes and deathly shades of blue. Allerdale Hall itself is a rich tapestry of production design, every surface embellished yet worn and creaking with age.
And yet, in its homages to 50s and 60s big-screen gothic, Crimson Peak takes in some of its camp factor, too. Del Toro has suggested that this latest horror opus follows on from The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, yet Crimson Peak lacks their emotive, unvarnished impact. Those earlier, Spanish-language films matched the fantastical and the horrific with what felt in the moment like their own version of reality; their Spanish Civil War settings seemed dangerous and genuine, not least thanks to the presence of characters like the sadistic Captain Vidal.
In Crimson Peak, a sense of the broadly theatrical hangs everywhere. The bustling, modern Boston Edith calls home is almost as ghostly and sinister as the staunchly Victorian, storm-whipped hall of the title. Moments of bloodletting are wince-inducing, but they don’t quite reach gut-level as they did in del Toro’s earlier horror masterpieces.
What Crimson Peak does have, though, is an entertaining sense of mystery, of a puzzle just waiting to be snapped together. It doesn’t take an expert in genre fiction to figure out that something’s not quite right about Thomas and his sister; the way his smile doesn’t quite meet the eyes, the way she murmurs conspiratorially to him when she thinks nobody’s listening. Like Thomas, del Toro is an expert at waltzing through all the dark possibilities. Some developments are predictable; a few don’t entirely convince; all are fun to see emerge.
While the visuals and Fernando Velazquez’s lush score compete for first place, the performances are the most entertaining part of all. Wasikowska’s smart and likeable as the lead, and Charlie Hunnam’s perfectly dashing as the Jonathan Harker-like McMichael, a doctor who suspects that the Sharpes are up to no good. Hiddleston and Chastain, on the other hand, are really something else. Hiddleston was born to play a secretive, straight-backed aristocrat, his lips pressed into a terse and faintly spiteful line. But Chastain scoops up the whole movie and marches off with it, glowering and muttering like a Pre-Raphaelite model gone rancid. She’s the closest Crimson Peak has to its own Vincent Price.
Crimson Peak is such a pleasurably grand tour of horror trappings, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook that it isn’t especially scary. There are jolts and jabs and shrieks here and there, but little to leave us quivering in the aisles. Perhaps it’s because del Toro’s love of the classics is so boyish and ever-present that even Crimson Peak’s creepier moments feel somehow cosy, like a florid Rosetti painting of a crime scene rather than a stark, authentic photograph.
Not that this necessarily matters in the final analysis. As the wind howls and the bright red clay oozes beneath Crimson Peak’s foundations, del Toro’s love of horror proves infectious.
Crimson Peak is out in UK cinemas on the 16th October.
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