There is a house in Cumberland, and its name is Allerdale Hall. It holds secrets that turn lethal once known, as a young woman will soon find out. With unspectacular box office numbers and a myriad of criticism claiming the film is “not scary”, it is easy to see why audiences would pass by Crimson Peak. Don’t make that mistake.
This is a twisted tale that finds novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) swept away by near-broke baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) to a mansion of sin in which his cold sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) resides. To appreciate Guillermo del Toro’s latest, one should take note that the intention here was to create a gothic romance rather than your typical, run-of-the-mill shock horror-fest. Think of Crimson Peak as a tale from Liaozhai Zhiyi (thank you, mom!), or any other anthology of the strange — the central narrative may make dips into the supernatural, but don’t go in expecting The Haunting.
While a $55 million budget for a brutal and kinky period piece may sound like a foolish investment, handing said money to a creative force like del Toro is a recipe for sleeping easy. Every penny is visible on screen from the multi-level sets, the grand furniture, and the lavish costumes in both the foreground and background. To complement the efforts of production designer Tom Sanders (Dracula) and costume designer Kate Hawley (Edge of Tomorrow), the film features excellent photography courtesy of Dan Laustsen – who last worked with del Toro on Mimic (and made the grotesque so appealing in Silent Hill).
Del Toro regulars Doug Jones (Hellboy) and Javier Botet (Mama) each do well in their ghostly roles, but the Devil’s Backbone-inspired wisps surrounding them break the immersion somewhat. As a result, the supernatural sequences unnerve at best despite their effective set-ups. By now, there is no denying that del Toro has a knack of making his films look more costly than they are but he excels more in the arena of practical effects. Translating the artistry of his vision to CGI remains one the director’s few shortcomings.
Another weakness, at least in regards to Crimson Peak, is the screenplay. Written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, Crimson Peak falls into many of the pitfalls that tend to plague horror films. Aside from the hasty ending, the script has a habit of showing its hand too early, in some cases removing the element of surprise altogether. With nearly a dozen reported revisions of the script, the film feels grand one moment and overly claustrophobic the next, resulting in a patchwork feeling that, while well-crafted, is unable to hide the stitch marks. Fortunately, the beating heart of the film more than sticks its landing – Edith’s characterization presents her as an intelligent and unwavering female protagonist: instead of sticking her hand into the ominous liquid, she uses a metal stick; when the assailant comes at her with a knife, she faces the danger with a machete. In a word, she’s smart, and that puts her ahead of all but a scant few in the horror genre.
Wasikowska’s brings much warmth to the more romantic side of Crimson Peak. Together with the charming Hiddleston, the two display a convincing amount of chemistry that hooks viewers in the slower moving sections prior to Edith’s arrival at Allerdale Hall. Admittedly, it takes her a while to get there – nearly 40 minutes, in fact. The slow start does run the risk of alienating audience expectations, and it also introduces several fleeting plot points. That said, it builds character and drama, and the initial chemistry between the two leads stands in solid contrast to the seedier sort of romance that surfaces later on.
In short, while Crimson Peak is more than worth your time, the film undeniably caters to the strange, rather than the outright scary. Those willing to appreciate the film’s intricate craftsmanship will enjoy this gorgeous, if unsurprising, waltz of crime and blood courtesy of Guillermo del Toro.