Crimson Peak review: a gothic ghost story for grown-ups

This year at Comic-Con, director Guillermo del Toro explained that early in his career he’d decided that he would keep his US films focused on the kind of B-movie monster and sci-fi stories he’d loved as a kid, while saving “my more adult and hardcore stuff for my European or Spanish-language films.” It brought his entire career into focus, explaining why the filmmaker behind haunting and atmospheric tales like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth could also be the same one making goofy, comic book action flicks like Hellboy and Pacific Rim.

On his latest film, the gothic romance Crimson Peak, del Toro said he’d been able to change that trajectory, making an “adult movie in the English language” for the first time. A period piece set in a massive, crumbling, haunted house, it’s arguably the most gorgeous film of his career, and with Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska heading up the cast, he’s never had more talent in front of the camera. But what exactly is an adult del Toro film in 2015 — and is it something audiences will even be receptive to if it’s not behind the highbrow sheen of a foreign language film?

Crimson Peak follows Edith (Wasikowska), an aspiring writer at the turn of the century who’s much more interested in telling ghost stories than playing the society games her peers are so enamored with. She’s a typical del Toro outsider, having lost her mother at an early age. She’s also downplaying a rather curious supernatural ability: she can see ghosts. When she meets sibling duo Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (Hiddleston and a tightly wound Chastain), she’s quickly taken by Thomas’ romantic gestures, and soon they’re married and off to England to take up residence at the Sharpe’s estate, Allerdale Hall — which the locals call Crimson Peak due to the blood-red clay deposits that lie just beneath the house.

Alone in the countryside with the pair, Edith quickly starts seeing apparitions, the kind of spooky, spindly armed phantoms that seem to populate all of del Toro’s worlds. There are secrets hidden in the house, and as Thomas and Lucille’s behavior turns increasingly erratic, Edith realizes she may very well be in danger.

As a filmmaker, del Toro has always been known for striking, creative visuals, but with Crimson Peak he’s truly reached a new level in his work. There’s a glowing, painterly quality to Dan Lausten’s photography here that is remarkable, and both the costumes and production design fully realize the world as a kind of stunning, waking dream. Allerdale Hall is pure atmosphere, the kind of place where dead leaves constantly stream through a never-repaired ceiling breach, and carved mannequin heads stare dead-eyed from the shelves of an attic workshop. The spell of that tactile reality is occasionally broken by some CG work that just doesn’t quite match the level of what was built on set — an ongoing weakness in many of del Toro’s films — but those moments are fleeting, the larger beauty of Crimson Peak overpowering the lapses.

CRIMSON PEAK promotional images (UNIVERSAL)

The character of the visuals — like the house itself — serve as the platform for the story, and that’s where del Toro is able to meld his twin career tracks of US and European films into one singular entity. The surface appeal of Crimson Peak is in the ghosts and scares; the accessible fright fests that he’s been successful with both as a director and producer. But when he refers to Crimson Peak as a gothic romance, that’s not hyperbole; this is a story about the heightened emotional power of love, and the damage it can inflict even while it raises individuals to new emotional heights. It’s the kind of story that has befuddled numerous filmmakers; one need only look back at Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula to see another similarly lush production that couldn’t quite connect with its basic thematic premise.

del Toro melds the twin tracks of his US and European films into a single gothic creation

But del Toro’s ever-present, earnest embrace of melodrama — a weakness in something like Pacific Rim — is what sees him through here. That’s not to say there aren’t tonal missteps or weak points; more than one serious moment earned laughter from the theater when dread was undoubtedly the intention. But Wasikowska’s performance is so warm and engaging that she shepherds the audience through, as does Hiddleston, who retains his likability even though he’s clearly a man with a secret right from the start.

Crimson Peak promotional still

Oddly enough, the weakest link in the entire film is Jessica Chastain, who is normally able to transform herself seamlessly from role to role, but here veers into a world of facial tics and menacing glares that borders on parody. It plays as a miscalculation on del Toro’s part, like he’s nodding a little too vigorously at Mrs. Danvers from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca — a stated influence — though Chastain is able to shine in a few moments of quiet, emotional introspection.

Plot twists and scares are almost beside the point

Ultimately, that’s how Crimson Peak lives or dies — not by its plotting (which can be clunky and unearned), nor its scares, but by how it connects emotionally. It’s always been the secret to del Toro’s Spanish films, which share a single weary, wounded romantic heart — the same one that’s beating here. But as much as I enjoyed the delirious, gory ride (one that I can’t wait to take again), I don’t imagine Crimson Peak is going to do very well. It’s not enough of a rote ghost story to appeal to hardcore genre fans, and movies trafficking in this kind of emotional sentiment aren’t exactly known for their box office performance. Instead, Crimson Peak will likely be discovered by many in the same way that they’ve found the best of del Toro’s work: on video, on Netflix, in arthouse revival theaters — and in the work of those he continues to inspire.

Crimson Peak opens Friday, October 16th.