Crimson Peak, for all director Guillermo del Toro’s earnest embrace of gothic romances and haunted house films, can’t help but avoid the modern meta-age of stories commenting on themselves. As heroine and aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mis Wasikowska) tells a prospective publisher about her novel, “It’s not so much a ghost story as a story with a ghost in it.”
Wasikowska has the period look but is woefully miscast here. She is a competent actress, but cannot come up with the playful personality that is supposedly the lure for two attractive suitors. Those suitors are Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), the plain but decent family doctor and Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a beggar lord who’s come to America with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to seek funding to mine their estate in England, Allerdale Hall.
The titular “Crimson Peak” is the fifth character, given equal development with its history and its actual existence – del Toro built the three story house and it lends itself to some brilliant cinematography. One can never accuse del Toro (who co-wrote the script with Matthew Robbins) of lacking imagination, talent and commitment to his vision.
Make no mistake, this is a del Toro film. His fascination with monsters, romantic tragedy, and bugs remain not only subtext but staples essential for del Toro to translate his vision to the audience and, indeed, for the audience to understand del Toro’s fascination. In contrast, he also includes machinery as equal part of his monstrous oevure, here represented by a machine the tinkering Thomas built to mine the special red clay his manor is built on.
Once the film arrives at Allerdale at the beginning of the second act, the film leaps forward in richness, making the previous first act, primarily set in America, seem a bit unnecessary. A film titled Crimson Peak should get the damn place before 30 minutes in, even if you do have an effective prologue featuring a ghost warning about the place.
Speaking the ghosts, you’d think del Toro, the consummate genre nerd, would nail this portion. But because it’s so bogged down on commenting on itself (more than once, characters flat-out state del Toro’s thesis that “ghosts are a metaphor for the past”), the tension inherent in haunted house films dissipates. Without the ambiguity, the plot slows to characters discovering the secrets at the heart of the house at different times, with little momentum or impact on Edith’s constant wanderings.
While the film developed, Emma Stone and Benedict Cumberbatch came and went from the roles of Edith and Thomas. In the former case, as I said, it seems a missed opportunity; Stone holds the all-American image and sharp wit Edith needed. As for Cumberbatch, it really was the best decision for everyone. Whereas Cumberbatch’s aloofness would have kept Thomas an enigma far longer, from the beginning with Tom Hiddleston, he embodies a wounded soul with his dark eyes and porcelain visage.
Chastain is uniformly terrific every role she’s in and the same is true here. Her Lucille is a cauldron, always at a low boil but when it bubbles to the surface, its electrifying. It is an extremely dark, tightly-wound role and it is she who represents another familiar del Toro theme: monsters may be real, but humans are the real monsters.
The titular Crimson Peak is a marvelous creation to look. The scale and care put in by del Toro and his crew show in every rusty corner and jagged edge but sadly del Toro’s film doesn’t quite live up to the effort put into its creation. Nonetheless, the authenticity of del Toro’s enthusiasm for his work is evident and he is one of the few auteurs alive who’s films can truly be called “love letters.” Despite its flaws, Crimson Peak is a worthy addition to the haunted house genre.