Modern studio horror films are typically an abysmal, pandering bunch, which is unfortunate because, ya know, Halloween is the best holiday. Director Guillermo Del Toro has been off in his laboratory cooking up a forgotten breed of horror. Gothic romance returns in Crimson Peak, a heightened melodrama fairy tale about ghosts and the connections between love and fear.
At the end of the 19th Century we meet our heroine, Mia Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing. She’s a Mary Shelley loving aspiring writer whose encountered ghosts. As she puts it “They’re metaphors for the past.” In almost Beauty and the Beast Gaston fashion, Tom Hiddleston’s Baron Thomas Sharpe enters the American town. He’s travelled here to pitch a new mining technology from back in England. Through a series of spoilery plot developments, Edith goes back to England with Thomas and his sister, Lucille Sharp, played by a deliriously evil Jessica Chastain.
Del Toro turns dials and mixes potions to craft a heightened world of romantic horror. The tone and aesthetic are luxuriously bombastic. Injected with Mario Bava’s Euro-horror flavor, Hitchcock’s noirish roots, and The Innocents (1961), Crimson Peak is not a new beast, but has a gloriously refreshing spirit. Characters stare at each other and the score swells while the camera spins around them. The gigantic mansion is a rotting gothic character positioned above red clay that comes gushing out of the ground like a bloody secret from the past.
The melodrama between the trio is sometimes forced and not quite powerful enough to carry the film. The story is agonizingly half baked and seems as though Del Toro is more interested in the setting. The 2nd act runs long with plot developments suffering from the weight of the film falling on unveiling mystery as Edith tries to deduce the siblings nefarious intentions. Ghosts are used to counter the melodrama, but I found them to be a huge miscalculation. They’re glaringly obvious CGI and a poor use of space renders the film with almost no scares, plus it takes away the ethereal strain that Del Toro clearly wanted.
When the blood finally comes it comes in big blows that wonderfully work opposite the slow boiling melodrama. The third act is when Crimson Peak‘s elements of gore, heightened romance, and melodrama bleed together to create a supremely fun work of genre filmmaking that deserves applauses. Forget the story and live in the atmosphere of bloody mayhem that has fleeting moments of grace. With it’s bloody love triangle centered in a mansion out in the middle of nowhere, I was tempted to call it Days of Crimson.
Del Toro’s finest creation came in the form of Pan’s Labyrinth, a fairy tale that stands as one of the greatest films ever made. His films since have never come close to reaching the echelon of mastery but there’s still shades of it in his films. Crimson Peak is probably his best American film. For even in it’s miscalculated scares and sometimes flat melodrama are a clear vision. Though he doesn’t always reach it, you can feel what he’s going for. I won’t be the one to start the fan club but this film will find an audience that’ll go nuts over it!
The intricately detailed production designs, costumes, and sets are lavish eye candy. The moments of greatness in Crimson Peak are the smallest: Snow falling on the crimson covered ground. Barren trees. Spewing blood. The look of loss on a character’s face. A ghost staring helplessly. The maniacal laugh of Jessica Chastain. A butterfly being eaten by ants.
I wish Del Toro had pushed these elements further, gotten rid of plot points, and gone full Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The lack of scares, undercooked story and over reliance on melodrama left me unable to fall in love with the film, but the blueprint and specific elements are colored in wonderfully.
There are three or four moments that reach a level of absurd majesty so high that I swooned. I walked out kinda wanting to go watch Only Lovers Left Alive because it does the romance and horror more potently, plus it has Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska. Or I could’ve watched Mia’s film, Stoker, the finest gothic creation of the decade.
Alas, this is not Del Toro’s return to greatness, but more so than his other American films, this has shades of graceful mayhem that suggest he’s still capable of it. Crimson Peak is a lavishly constructed, unabashedly adoring ode to gothic horror that offers romance, gore, and even tragedy. Obviously flawed, but still one of the years best genre films.