Like any storyteller, visionary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a set of themes and ideas that recur throughout his body of work. Children, lacking at least one biological parent if not both, forced to confront dangerous circumstances intertwined with secrets from a past not wholly dead. It’s easy to see how these fit into del Toro’s masterpieces Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, but they even make themselves clear in less “arty” works (Pacific Rim, The Mimic) and his production work (Mama, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark). These themes are also the hallmarks of the Gothic genre; it was, perhaps, inevitable that he would eventually make a film like Crimson Peak.
Granted, protagonist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) may not be a child, but she possesses a certain naïveté at odds with her inner strength and willfulness. An aspiring author and daughter of a wealthy New York industrialist (Jim Beaver of Deadwood, Supernatural, and Justified), she meets the dashing but destitute British baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, Wasikowka’s Only Lovers Left Alive co-star), and the two quickly fall in love. The elder Cushing doesn’t approve, but his sudden death leaves the two to pursue their romance; they soon marry and move into the Sharpe estate (nicknamed “Crimson Peak”) with Thomas’s elder sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). But life is not happy at Crimson Peak, and Edith soon takes ill and begins seeing what could be ghosts. Back in New York, Edith’s former suitor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy), comes across information uncovered by Edith’s father shortly before his death…information that sheds suspicion on Sir Thomas’s real motives…
Those familiar with del Toro’s work will not find themselves surprised at Crimson Peak’s lush beauty. Crimson Peak is a place where the walls can literally run red–not with blood, admittedly, but with mud (Sir Thomas tells us his forebears built his ancestral home upon clay), but the symbolism is clear, as are the visual possibilities. The most obvious aesthetic influences come from The Shining and the ’60s Technicolor Hammer Gothics (you did notice the heroine’s surname, right?) along with more understated classics such as The Innocents and The Haunting. The special effects are marvelous, with del Toro staple Doug Jones providing fine motion-capture performances for some of the ghosts.
However, del Toro hasn’t fallen so far down the CGI/SFX rabbit-hole that he’s forgotten how to tell a human story, something that distinguishes him from other filmmakers in his niche such as Jackson, Cameron and the Wachowskis. Crimson Peak’s world-building relies as much on its characters and storyline than its visual and technical aspects. While it is, unabashedly, a work of formula, the characters are more archetypes than clichés. Wasikowska and Chastain dominate the film with fierce performances, but the rest of the cast–Hiddleston, the endearingly gruff Beaver, Hunnam, and character actors Leslie Hope (as Alan’s snobbish mother) and Burn Gorman (as a slimy private investigator)–get enough room to do what they do best.
The result is a multilayered film that attempts a lot–mystery, love story, ghost story, horror, big-budget spectacular–and succeeds at all of it. Dark, lovely, atmospheric, and creepy, it’s the perfect film for the Hallowe’en season.