Guillermo del Toro has often been described as a director who works on a ‘one for them, one for me’ schedule, alternating between bigger-budgeted mainstream Hollywood movies and smaller, more personal Spanish-language productions. This isn’t 100% accurate; he did follow Blade II with Hellboy but is generally the case. Crimson Peak sees him more obviously attempt to combine his two types of movies than ever before, being a lower-scale fantasy work of his own writing, yet also be in English and feature a number of big movie stars.
The one thing that del Toro can’t be faulted on is his visual imagination, which is on full display here. Crimson Peak is stunning to look at, with incredible production design by Thomas E. Sanders and assisted by Dan Laustsen’s fluid cinematography. The film primarily takes place in Allerdale Hall, a centuries-old Gothic mansion, isolated on the moors of Cumberland in the North of England. It doesn’t just look like some shiny new film set, it’s convincingly decrepit with a gaping hole in its roof letting the elements in, yet still retains signs of its former glory. It sits atop a red clay mine – the ‘crimson peak’ of the title, the colour of which del Toro exaggerates to vivid levels creating some truly memorable imagery to set his story against.
The film does not begin in Allerdale Hall though; in fact it takes some time to get there. The majority of the first act takes place in 1901 Buffalo, New York where an aspiring young writer of supernatural novels named Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is introduced to visiting English Baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Sharpe takes a liking to her but his financial situation meets her businessman father’s (Jim Beaver) disapproval. Events transpire ultimately leading to their marriage and Edith moves to England to live with her new husband in Allerdale Hall.
Del Toro has gone on the record saying that he does not consider Crimson Peak to be a horror film but rather a “Gothic romance”. I don’t believe del Toro’s someone who considers horror to be some sort of lesser genre but at the same time have no qualms myself about calling this horror. I wonder if del Toro’s concerns stem from the horror elements being rather infrequent, but when they’re there, he tends to shoot them aiming for some solid scares, which he certainly gains.
It’s not just the haunted house jump-scares that disturb, del Toro punctuates the elegant period drama visuals with some brief moments of quite horrific violence which truly shock considering how starkly they contrast the previous tone, a technique he similarly employed in the more overtly fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth.
If a Gothic romance is what del Toro really wanted this movie to be, then I’m afraid it only really succeeds with the ‘Gothic’ part. The romantic element to Crimson Peak is a little tricky to discuss without going into spoiler territory, as the full extent of it is not revealed until late in the story, but it is unfortunately the least convincing aspect of the film. I simply don’t see enough onscreen to suggest that one character is as in love with another as they later – in a crucial, decision-making moment – profess to be.
In fact the ultimate progression of this often intriguing, mysterious story is a little disappointing and dare I say it, predictable. The build-up did appear to suggest that there would be a bit more substance to Crimson Peak to match its sumptuous style, but there’s not a great deal here. It actually climaxes with a stabby fight scene that features characters dropping cheesy one-liners like they’re in an eighties action movie.
One of the problems that dragged down del Toro’s previous film Pacific Rim was the acting, specifically that of bland, charisma-free leading man Charlie Hunnam, but even proven performers like Idris Elba didn’t come across too well. It’s a little alarming to see that Hunnam has again been cast in Crimson Peak, but thankfully it’s in a supporting role as a rival suitor to Edith that he’s a much better fit for. The film’s actual leading man, Tom Hiddleston, is someone you could never accuse of blandness, and generally does an excellent job here, as does Mia Wasikowska as the protagonist.
However, there is one more central character in Crimson Peak, Lucille Shape, the sister of Sir Thomas, played by Jessica Chastain. Lucille also lives with them in Allerdale Hall and does not appear too fond of Edith. Chastain is an actress I usually have nothing but praise for but I honestly don’t quite know what to make of her performance here. She’s clearly relishing her chance to go all-out and play such an erratic, over-the-top character, but at the same time I can understand someone finding her performance totally off-putting, as I did at first. Her wobbly accent is part of the issue, and in her first few scenes it really sounded like her dialogue had been ADR-ed in. I think the issue with her performance is how in opposition it is to the others, which are more in line with standard period dramas and she never quite fits in.
When Edith is trying to sell her novel to a publisher at the start of the film, she states that it is “not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts in it”. This is obviously intended to also describe Crimson Peak. There are ghosts in the movie, quite memorable ones at that, but their purpose is never really explored. Edith sees one in the first scene warning her of “crimson peak” but we never learn why, or indeed if anyone else sees the ghosts that haunt Allerdale Hall. The manner in which they are sidelined leaves the film feeling a little unsatisfactory.
Similarly to Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak finds Guillermo del Toro bringing his genuinely affectionate take on older (though quite different) genres he loves to the modern screen. It’s is another testament to his astonishing visionary talents, but could have perhaps helped with a little more depth on the script-level.