CRIMSON PEAK. Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. 119 minutes.Rated MA15+ (Strong bloody violence).
The latest film from Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro could be labelled a gothic romance-horror-mystery. It tries to juggle too many genre balls, and ultimately doesn’t quite manage to keep them all in the air, but when the results are this visually handsome, it still justifies a viewing for aesthetically appreciative audiences.
‘Ghost are real’ – the opening line sets the tone for the film. A young woman in the late 1800’s is haunted by the spectre of her mother, issuing the ominous warning; ‘Beware of Crimson Peak’. Some years later, aspiring author Edith Cushing still lives with her businessman father in America. Actress Mia Wasikowska appears somewhat miscast in the role, and along with several other players doesn’t quite establish her character well enough for us to be invested. When dashing and mysterious English nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, dialling up his sinister brooding) meets with her father to request an investment, she is caught up in his charisma and falls for him.
Her suspicious father is less taken, and hires an investigator to look into Sir Thomas and his sister Lucille. American Jessica Chastain plays the Brit with a very come-and-go accent, though her intensity is impressive. Receiving the investigation’s results, Edith’s father questions Sir Thomas’ motives, and blackmails the Sharpes into leaving the country. Before his plan comes to fruition, he is brutally murdered by a figure with a certain likeness to Sir Thomas (and this reviewer stresses the extreme violence here and elsewhere). The only one questioning her father’s “accident” is family physician Dr Alan McMichael, who is also smitten with Edith. However, after accepting a marriage proposal from Sir Thomas, Edith is bundled off with the Sharpes to their family home in remote Northern England.
Even before leaving America, Del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen establish a sumptuous shooting style, dense with expressionist lighting utilising lots of blues and reds. It suits the macabre tale, and augments the supernatural atmosphere well.
Arriving at Allerdale Hall, Edith gets to know her new husband and his sister, and she cannot help but notice that there is a dark presence clinging to them. Naturally, things spiral out of control as the Sharpes and Edith lock horns in a battle for her life. The spiritual aspects are never explained in great detail, but they provide a sort of ‘mood’ rather than drive the plot, which is left largely to mystery aspect of the film. Del Toro references Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an early scene, but neither he nor his co-writer Matthew Robbins can concoct a detective story with any real bite, and the big reveal is a little obvious to see coming. Like many horror films, the narrative also relies on the audience ignoring at least half a dozen moments where any rational person would simply pack up and leave, and silly moments are scattered throughout, such as a character running easily on a recently broken leg.
The dilapidated old mansion however, a masterful display of gothic design and practical sets, generates easily enough interest to sustain the feature’s length. Sitting atop a mountain of red clay, the floors and walls run red with crimson sludge – it’s not subtle, but Del Toro has no interest in subtlety in his design. Spikes leap from the ceiling detailing, hand-sized black moths populate entire walls, rich furnishings adorn the derelict rooms. Allerdale Hall is a meticulously realised vision, even if the sound design inhabiting it is a little pedestrian (A haunted house? It must have constant giggling children noises!).
Long story short, Del Toro’s latest is frustratingly disappointing. It doesn’t rise to the heights of his brilliant early films ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘The Devil’s Backbone’. This is not to say it is bad – the graphics along may justify a viewing, but the story could be placed on mute for an improved experience.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out October 15.