After the not-quite-blockbuster box-office success of Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos) middling foray into big-budget spectacle (Universal recently put a planned sequel on indefinite hold), it was all but inevitable that del Toro would scale back his ambitions, budgetary and otherwise, and return to his horror roots, a return welcomed by del Toro’s relatively small, loyal, vocal fanbase. Return to his roots del Toro indeed does with Crimson Peak, a hyper-stylized Gothic horror-romance/homage that never quite rises to the level of del Toro’s earlier, more accomplished efforts like the aforementioned film trio, but it still offers an abundance of sensory pleasures (albeit less so where narrative ones are concerned) drawn directly from del Toro’s fertile, fervid imagination and his unabashed, love of Gothic horror-romances.
Deliberately, methodically paced retro-horror style, Crimson Peak puts the “slow” in “slow burn,” taking the better part of hour to transport Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a budding, turn of the last century novelist and the privileged daughter of a wealthy, self-made industrialist, Carter (Jim Beaver), to cross the Atlantic Ocean as the new, adoring bride of Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an impoverished, fortune-hunting baronet/inventor, and her new home, Allerdale Hall, an isolated, decaying, haunted mansion dubiously built over a now exhausted red-clay mine (the “crimson” of the title). Sharpe isn’t alone at Allerdale Hall, however. While his financial predicament precludes all but one or two servants, his sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), aids him in running the family estate. Fiercely, obsessively possessive of her brother, Lady Lucille represents a clear threat to Edith and Sir Thomas’ future happiness. Then again, matrimonial happiness/wedded bliss and Gothic romances generally don’t go together; emotional anguish, violence, and tragedy do.
As Edith likes to point out, turning subtext into text, ghosts are metaphors for the past, inescapable and otherwise, but as she also notes, she sees dead people and they see her back, though the ghosts in Crimson Peak are peripheral, tangential creations, periodically appearing to warn Edith of impending doom and, of course, shock and scare moviegoers who expect shocks and scares with their horror. Death-shrouded ghosts are far from the menace Edith initially suspects, however. Mirroring The Devil’s Backbone thematically, not to mention structurally (bookend scenes, poetic voiceover narration), the monsters in Crimson Peak aren’t supernatural, they’re human and they wear human skins and human smiles. It’s only a matter of time before Edith discovers the mortal, existential danger of marrying into the Sharpe family. That eventual discovery puts Edith firmly in damsel in distress mode, but del Toro smartly realizes that contemporary audiences won’t buy into a weak, victimized Edith. Ultimately, Edith has to become the means of her own salvation (if she’s to survive at all).
Del Toro throws in an underdeveloped romantic triangle between Edith, Sir Thomas, and Dr. Allan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), an old family acquaintance and one-time crush. Del Toro signals McMichael as a potential hero both by his keen interest in Edith and Sir Thomas’ background and his avowed love of Sherlock Holmes. He sees himself as something of a detective, a crusading one at that, but Del Toro just as smartly tweaks, if not outright subverts, audience expectations about McMichael’s third-act role in Crimson Peak, though del Toro and his screenwriting partner, Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer), subtract 20-25 IQ points from McMichael at a crucial point (Ebert’s “idiot plotting” on full display). Common sense gives way to narrative expediency, a significant, if not entirely insurmountable, problem del Toro has to overcome to keep moviegoers fully engaged in Edith’s plight.
Edith may be Crimson Peak’s central character, but it’s Allerdale Hall that looms as the fourth (or fifth, counting McMichael) major character. It’s become something of a cliché to use the “X is a character” (where “X” is non-human) in film criticism, but it’s no less true where Allerdale Hall is concerned. Del Toro poured every hyper-stylized, Gothic-inspired idea into the design and construction of Allerdale Hall (an actual set, as opposed to a partial, CG-augmented set), from the broad, imposing staircase to the ornamental carvings that define and redefine Allerdale Hall’s labyrinth hallways, doorways, and bedrooms, a cluttered attic filled with old furniture and even older memories, a rickety elevator, and a vast basement filled with retaining pools for the blood-like red clay that gives Crimson Peak its name (for the red clay that seeps into the first snow of winter).
Ultimately, however, production design isn’t enough. Del Toro milks the all too predictable third-act plot twist for far too long. It’s one in a series of misjudgments or missteps that include the Sir Thomas-Edith-McMichael triangle, the (potential) Sir-Thomas-Edith-Lucille triangle, a repetitive, padded second act, and a checklist approach to homage (e.g., The Innocents, The Haunting, Flowers in the Attic, The Shining, etc.) that quickly grows tiresome. Curiously, del Toro abandons a potentially fascinating, nuanced exploration of class conflict (self-made American elites vs. the inherited non-wealth of British aristocrats) in the first act for familiar Gothic romance/horror tropes in the second and third acts that results in another missed opportunity for an auteur-caliber filmmaker like del Toro.