Directed by: Guillermo del Toro.
Written by: Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins.
Starring: Mia Wasikowska (Edith Cushing), Jessica Chastain (Lucille Sharpe), Tom Hiddleston (Thomas Sharpe), Charlie Hunnam (Dr. Alan McMichael), Jim Beaver (Carter Cushing), Burn Gorman (Holly), Leslie Hope (Mrs. McMichael), Doug Jones (Edith's Mother, Lady Sharpe), Jonathan Hyde (Ogilvie), Bruce Gray (Ferguson).
Guillermo del Toro may well have been born into the wrong time. No matter if his films are large budget blockbusters (Blade, two Hellboy film, Pacific Rim), or Spanish language horror films (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth), del Toro doesn’t do things small – his films are filled with stunning visuals and larger than life emotions. He would have made a great director of silent films in the 1920s. His latest films, Crimson Peak, could have been a silent – but it also would have fit in nicely in the 1940s or early 1950s – its clear influences including a pair of Hitchcock films, Rebecca (1940) and Notorious (1946), as well as novels like Jane Eyre, which was also adapted in the 1940s, and audiences knew what to do with them. Crimson Peak is an odd film in part because it doesn’t really fit in with what anyone else is doing right now. The studio is marketing it as a horror film – playing up the ghosts and all the blood in the previews and releasing it just in time for Halloween, and there is certainly an element of that here. But it’s not strictly a horror film – it’s more of gothic romance, albeit, one with a lot more blood than normal. I can pretty much guarantee that the film – whose critical and commercial reaction so far has been mixed – will end up being beloved by a small, but passionate group of people. They just need to find it.
The film opens in America, in the 1800s, and focuses on Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), whose mother died when she was young – but did come to her as a ghost, complete with very long fingers - reminiscent of everything Nosferatu or The Babadook – to warn her about Crimson Peak. Her father (Jim Beaver) is rich and influential, and doesn’t mind the fact that his bookish daughter shuns the parties everyone else seems to adore, and wants to be writer. She even has an admirer in Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), and the two are doing the kind of shy dance of flirtation typical in these types of romances. But into town arrives Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a Brit with the title of Baronet (which no one understands, but it sounds fancy), but no money hoping to find some financial backing for his latest scheme. He doesn’t get that, but he pursues Edith hard, and the naïve girl is immediately swept off her feet – even if she, and everyone else, isn’t quite sure what to make of Thomas’ dour sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who is always around and always watching. Things happen, and Edith ends up marrying Thomas, and returning to his dilapidated estate in England – full of weird noises, and secrets.
Allerdale Hall is the name of the estate – and it is masterpiece of production design. The estate is built on red clay – which was responsible for the family fortune, and which Thomas is still trying to find ways to mine to restore it. But the house has fallen into such deep disrepair, that parts of the roof are missing, and leaves, and eventually snow, sprinkle down throughout the house, as the blood red clay seeps in through the floorboards. When you run a bath, you have to let it go for minute – because at first, the water looks like blood because of the clay. Allerdale Hall is, like Manderlay in Rebecca or Thorndale Hall in Jane Eyre, is a large place, with rooms that Edith is not supposed go into, and lots of strange noises. Thomas is clearly hiding something – and seems a little bit more standoffish than before – they haven’t even consummated their marriage yet. And Lucille is always watching – like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca or Claude Rains’ mother in Notorious – but Edith cannot quite pin down what it is that bothers her so much about her.
The actors in the film are mainly used as props by del Toro – he cast them because they look the part, and they do that wonderfully. Wasikowska, quietly building up one of the most impressive resumes of any actress of her generation, looks wonderful as the naïve woman, stalking through the dark house with a candelabra. Huddleston has the right roguish charm to play Thomas – and the right notes of cowardice later on. Chastain is made to look harsh and severe as Lucille – you know eventually whatever secrets are going to spill out, are going to come from her. Del Toro makes the most of these actors – favoring close-ups often. The trio is so good – with an assist from Charlie Hunnam – that for most of the runtime you forget just how one dimensional all the characters are – we know who they are from the beginning, and we’re right. When the third act starts monologuing, it hurts the film a little, although these types of films always include a healthy dose of monologuing.
Crimson Peak is a probably a little long for its own good. I loved the look of the film from the start, and I found the film a refreshing change for the standard horror movie that I had been expecting. Still, once del Toro establishes his story, he ends up taking it precisely where you think he will, and he takes a little too long to get there. Some critics have complained that the film is not scary – and that’s true, it’s not. But it does so much else, does it have to be scary too? The film will take it’s time finding its audience – it’s a film that I almost want to recommend to my mother – who counts Jane Eyre as one of her favorite books – but I worry she’ll be turned off by all the blood. Those who like the blood may well be turned off by the fact that it’s basically a love story. Del Toro has made this film for a very specific audience – it may be small, but I think they’ll love it more than I did when they find it.