Of all the directors associated with nerd culture, there are few as loved as Guillermo Del Toro. That love and fan commitment is grounded in a body of work that connects viscerally with our childhood fears and imagination. Del Toro, more than any other, is a spinner of fairy tales. His films harken back to a kind folklore that is preliterate, the kind that is told by fireside and at bedtime. Whether they are about monsters (even the human sort), vampires, or ghosts, his tales engage our gothic sensibilities and remind us of a time when candlewicks and gaslamps barely pushed back the shadows of our nightmares. It is what keeps us coming back to his stories, even those produced with lesser success. Crimson Peak is, with a few exceptions, a success.
Crimson Peak is all Guillermo Del Toro. 100%. Even though the screenplay was co-written with Mathew Robbins (a name every nerd should know), the work looks and feels so much of the filmmaker, it’d be impossible to mistake for anyone else’s. The setting is well-suited to Del Toro’s aesthetic. The romantic ghost tale takes place towards the end of the Victorian Age–much of its imagery juxtaposes the rise of invention alongside 19th century mysticism. Judith Cushing, played by Mia Wisakowska, is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. She finds herself affectionately entangled with an English “baronet,” played by Tom Hiddelston, who isn’t everything he claims to be. The time period, the costumes, and the homes lend themselves to the voluptuous elegance of the affair, landing itself somewhere between Jane Austen and Bram Stoker. It is, truly, a gorgeous film to look at, but it’s not without its flaws.
Crimson Peak’s most glaring problem is its character’s development. Development is difficult when much the dialogue spoken by said characters is clunky and uneven. Tom Hiddleston, whose performance is otherwise excellent, can do little to deliver authenticity with lines better suited to Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Jane Eyre, though he certainly tries. Outside the three central actors, there are no characters of real consequence; they exist only as plot pivots. Charlie Hunnam is the real throwaway here as Dr. Alan McMichael. As I watched Hunnam try to make his character seem relevant, I was reminded of Keanu Reeves’ awful rendering of Jonathan Harker in Coppola’s 1992 Dracula. By no fault of Hunnam’s performance, the character just didn’t make any sense and, per poorly written dialogue, had nothing interesting to say. In fact, we are introduced to a number of characters in Crimson Peak that come and go, never to be seen again, and the audience has little reason to care where they went. However, aside from the character flaws, Crimson Peak does get a lot right. A LOT.
At its heart, Crimson Peak is a love-triangle thriller, and thrilling it is. As mentioned before, its pacing is a dirge for the first sixty minutes or so. However, by the time the cast heads to England, the tension is high and rarely lets up. Credit must be given to Jessica Chastain as Lucille Sharpe. She is the true monster of Crimson Peak, and she is terrifying from beginning to end–a human horror surpassing the ghostly inhabitants of Allerdale Hall. Chastain’s intensity gives the film its energy and its unease. But, that is not to discount Del Toro’s wonderful ghoulies. A number of ghosts haunt the halls of Allerdale, and it is with them that the director shines. This is what Guillermo does. He makes the grotesque beautiful like no one else can. What can I say? The spirits are exquisite, blistering, festering, sublime phantasmagoria. Each one has a tale to tell. Each one embodies loss, love, fear. Unlike the mansion, which I found too derivative of Del Toro’s other set pieces, each ghost was lovingly crafted and significant to the unity of the work.
Crimson Peak is a bit tiresome during its first two acts but is great fun everywhere else. It has undeniable beauty, but more significantly, it tells a compelling (and wonderfully creepy) story. It’s not one for the kiddies. Guillermo makes good use of the R-rating, and we appreciate him for that. If you can get past some shallow character development (and you can), Crimson Peak pays off in the end. In buckets of blood, it pays and pays.