Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro is one of the truly great visual auteurs currently writing and directing big budget studio pictures. There’s little doubt that when a new film of his is announced it will be something for the eyes to savour. So visually intoxicating are his ghost stories (The Devil’s Backbone), fairy-tales (Pan’s Labyrinth) and giant robot vs sea beast smack-downs (Pacific Rim) that I’m often wont to forgive the lack of plot. Hellboy, for example, is an utterly beautiful comic book adaptation, perfectly cast and full of memorable imagery, but after several viewings, I’m still a little hazy on the narrative.
The hallmarks of a classic gothic
Crimson Peak has, whether consciously or not, made amends for Del Toro’s previous oversights by crafting a classic English Lovecraftian horror initially set in late 19th century America (switching later to England), which borrows from Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe amongst others.
In classic gothic tradition, the protagonist is a young female writer, Edith (Wasikowska), whose bedroom is frequently visited by horrific apparitions.
Despite attentions from Alan (Charlie Hunnam), the family doctor – a sweet natured labrador of a man – she remains steadfast in her ambitions as a writer of horror fiction. Despite his handsomeness and gentle demeanour, Alan lacks any of the depth required to interest Edith.
Enter then Englishman Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a man clad in black, oozing Old World mystery and melancholy romanticism. Soon she’s returning with Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Chastain) to England and leaving the suspicious death of her father behind her. On arrival at the siblings’ ancestral home in Cumberland, the apparitions intensify – and all is not as it first seemed.
Antagonists are perfect
Hiddleston excels, of course. It almost feels like lazy casting to put a man who so successfully embodied Loki, the god of mischief, into this role. Indeed, there’s an initial suspicion that Hiddleston is so comfortable he’s decided to phone this one in. However, when he’s later required to give more, he does so – it’s difficult to suggest anyone better qualified to both seduce and disturb an audience by means of Byronic snakiness.
Australian actress Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre, Alice In Wonderland) brings a refreshingly boyish quality to the otherwise inexperienced and vulnerable Edith, contrasting nicely with her wardrobe of Victorian corsets and petticoats. Jessica Chastain, currently everyone’s go-to redheaded beauty (The Martian), is virtually unrecognisable thanks in part to a dark dye-job and clipped English accent. She dominates the screen with a feline presence that recalls European stars of 60s and 70s cinema such as Claudia Cardinale or Barbara Carrera – all the while expertly channelling Lucille’s cold heart and broken-headed menace.
Narrative a little too neat
Del Toro has a habit of reintroducing us to worlds and genres we thought we understood only to pierce our expectations, often with visceral, memorable violence. Crimson Peake is no exception. Imagine The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton’s brilliant adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, peppered with the kind of blackly comic violence and graphic blood-letting only seen in films several decades later. The effect is intentionally jarring and the film all the better for it.
Ultimately, Del Toro has the opposite problem this time in that his narrative structure is a little too neat – and yet still, the production design is extraordinarily gorgeous and there’s unlikely to be a better candidate for your Halloween cinema visit.