Apart from seeing the odd poster dotted around I didn’t know much about Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film until the day before its release. I didn’t even watch the trailer but read a very brief synopsis. I figured if it’s a ghost story I should probably know as little as possible. Edith (Mia Wasikowska), a young aspiring writer is seduced by her father’s business associate Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) during his visit to America to secure financing for his red clay mine. Following a tragic turn of events, she finds her purpose in life has dramatically changed and marries Sir Thomas before being swept away to his remote mansion in Cumberland, England. He lives with his sister Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), a mysterious figure whom Edith never truly connects with until she starts witnessing ghostly visions around the mansion and her investigations begin to unravel the Sharpe family’s dark secrets. However, the siblings have a lot to hide and Lady Lucille does not take kindly to her past being revealed.
Crimson Peak is an odd beast. A brief jump in the opening scenes, a gruesome murder and then a good 45 minutes of scene setting before the story finally relocates to England, it never fully gets going until the final quarter. Whilst I admire Del Toro’s willingness to set the scene and provide a greater emotional depth to the central characters, it does so at the expense of tension and that is a serious issue in a gothic horror/ghost story. Also, once we arrive at the mansion I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a very strange spin on Stoker’s Dracula and I was half expecting his brides to appear at any moment. Of course, they don’t and this is not a tale of vampiric lust but it is certainly indebted to that tale as we see Edith’s American suitor (Dr Alan McMichael played by Charlie Hunnam) cross an ocean to save his beloved from the hands of a sinister foe.
As Edith’s encounters with the spirits of Crimson Peak become more frequent, the ghostly visions also become more ghastly. The ghosts are fantastic creations but Del Toro sadly seems intent on using CGI to bring them to life. Whilst the horror genre is experiencing a resurgence in old school effects, this appears to have completely passed him by and that’s a real shame because his gothic sensibilities would work well brought to life through prosthetics and enhanced by subtle CGI. It’s also worth mentioning that the stylised movement of one of the ghosts harks back to Pan’s Labyrinth and I think is one of the few times we truly see Del Toro’s own brand of gothic.
I’m afraid I have something of a love/hate relationship with Guillermo Del Toro… I love his gothic eye for detail but hate his desire to CGI anything that is supposed to be scary. I love his willingness to let a story develop naturally but hate how it does so at the expense of tension. In fact, the only aspect I think he does achieve is his ‘Grande Guignol’ aesthestic when it comes to gore which is normally touched with an underlying moral or melancholy. The film plays out in a style that is less his own and instead channels the gothic visions of Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Jordan (Interview with the Vampire), Burton (Sweeney Todd) and Hammer (any!). Crimson Peak is undoubtedly a sumptuous feast for the eyes but sadly it’s more beautiful to look at than it is scary.