When Guillermo del Toro set out to co-write and direct Crimson Peak, a work of Gothic horror as gorgeous as it is preposterous, the word “restraint” must have been missing from his movie-making mission statement. In its place, presumably, were other terms, such as “absurd,” “grandly sinister,” “excessively mannered” and “occasionally stabby.”
Crimson Peak is all of those things, as well as “longer than really necessary.” But even when it drags, or the actors milk the melodrama too aggressively, or the twists become obvious several scenes before they’re actually revealed — something that happens more than once — you can’t completely dismiss this film, either. Its world, while over-the-top, has also been so carefully molded by del Toro, co-writer Matthew Robbins, cinematographer Dan Laustsen and, especially, the production design and costume departments, that it’s impossible to look away from it. It’s Merchant Ivory gone Grand Guignol. It’s part Charlotte Brontë novel, part haunted house movie. It’s a really effed-up Downton Abbey spin-off with a Tim Burton-esque sensibility, minus Tim Burton’s sense of humor.
“Ghosts are real. This much I know,” Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) announces via voice-over in the opening moments of the picture. She knows this because, as a girl, Edith is visited by the specter of her recent mother, who warns her to beware of something called crimson peak. From there, the story fast-forwards 14 years to find Edith as a young woman in Buffalo, New York, doting over her aging father (Jim Beaver) and doggedly attempting to publish a ghost-story novel she’s written. When some of the local women teasingly refer to her as “our very own Jane Austen” and note that Austen died a spinster, Edith retorts, “I would prefer to be Mary Shelley. She died a widow.” Both the mention of these authors, as well as Edith’s last name — presumably a nod to Peter Cushing, the actor who starred in many classic Hammer horror films — point quite clearly to del Toro’s influences here. And the way Edith complains about being advised to add a love story to her book’s plot foreshadows what happens next.
Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) — a dapper Brit seeking financial backing for a machine that will more effectively mine the rare red clay at Allendale Hall, his family estate — enters the picture. Edith falls for him, despite the objections of her father and longtime family friend Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, with an accent best described as Buffalo by way of Great Britain), and the overbearing presence of Thomas’ frosty sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Soon enough, Edith finds herself residing with Thomas, Lucille and a few other creepy “residents” at Allendale Hall, a decaying castle where the clay seeps through the walls and floorboards like overflowing red velvet cake batter. (Pssst: The clay also kinda looks like blood.)
Del Toro is intent on making a thoroughly period film, in of setting, as well as technique. That explains why old-school Iris wipes frequently serve as transitions between scenes and why there’s no wink-wink meta business inviting us to laugh at some of the sillier moments. He’s telling a dramatic ghost story and does so with the utmost seriousness, which is admirable even if it doesn’t always work.
Too frequently, all that straight-faced commitment crashes into the ridiculously foreboding situations in which Edith finds herself. Soon after she arrives at Allendale Hall, for example, Thomas suggests that she take a bath to warm up. But he warns her, “The pipes will run red at first… because of the clay.” (It’s extra-chilly inside because part of the roof of the house is missing, allowing cold air and snow to flow into the entryway, as is customary in rundown mansions built on acres of ruby-colored mud.)
He also warns her, with no hint of irony, never to go down to the basement level. And when Thomas isn’t tossing obvious red flags in the air, Lucille is offering to pour Edith a cup of tea in a blatantly threatening way that screams, “Here, have some caffeinated murder-water.” Surely, Edith — a woman who, at least in the first half of the movie, seems intelligent and self-possessed — would assess these clues, make a mad dash out of Allendale’s cathedral-sized front doors and start roaming the countryside until she found the closest thing to a late-1890s Motel 6. Yet she stays, despite the fact that, as Lucille, Chastain seems to be competing with the late Bette Davis in a Consistent Delivery of Withering Glances contest.
Crimson Peak has another problem. Aside from a few deliciously gory sequences and a handful of jolts — skeletal specters who burst suddenly from shadows or door knobs that shake with otherworldly force — it’s not particularly scary. Though its focus on an eerily remote home in the English countryside calls to mind Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, del Toro’s film doesn’t conjure up quite the same insidiously creepy atmosphere as that 2001 shocker did.
It does look fantastic, though, to a degree that keeps the eyes riveted to the screen. Allendale Hall is a fantastically improbable macabre wonder, with elaborate moldings, Gothic windows and masses of moths that distinguish it from most houses of onscreen horror we’ve seen before. And costume designer Kate Hawley, who worked with del Toro previously on Pacific Rim, has enormous fun with the fashions. Wasikowska is frequently outfitted in dresses with sleeves that billow from her arms like partially inflated balloons and, once at Allendale, in ones that add splashes of youthful yellow to the film’s dour color palette. The first time Chastain appears onscreen while playing the piano at a Buffalo party, she’s ensconced in a formal crimson gown with a train so long that it has to be gathered on the floor beside her, like a pool of silken blood.
If Edith had her eyes open, she might notice that bloody visual cue and realize she should avoid Lucille, her brother, and any thought of relocating to their hair-raisingly dysfunctional manor house. But because this is a horror movie that embraces all the genre’s tropes without apology, she keeps her eyes metaphorically closed until, perhaps, it’s too late.
Jen Chaney is a pop culture critic and writer whose work appears in The Washington Post, Vulture, Esquire.com and numerous other outlets. She’s also author of the book As If!: The Oral History of Clueless. She can be found on Twitter @chaneyj.