“Ghosts are real” begins Crimson Peak, latest Guillermo Del Toro Halloween-Ready extravaganza. I call it an extravaganza, not a movie, because over the years Del Toro has made a questionable point of making splashy visual playgrounds for his inner fanboy, as opposed to true films. This works sometimes better (Hellboy) and sometimes way worse (Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark) than moviegoers expect and deserve.
Crimson Peak is one of his better offerings, but that opening line can be misleading. Sure there are ghosts in the story, but it is not a ghost story. Instead it is a (pretty shameless) melodramatic cross between Jayne Eyre, Rebecca, The Innocents, all wrapped into one amazingly costume and stage designed package, more of a Gothic soap opera than horror. Audiences should adjust their expectations because if you wanted a steady sequence of scares, you may walk away disappointed. But, if you consider yourself forewarned what you are getting into, there is plenty to enjoy in this bloody chocolate box of a film.
The story follows Edith Cushing, a budding novelist and independent young woman from Upstate New York, as she falls in love, marries, and moves to England with the charming (if awfully pale and prone to wearing WAY TOO MUCH BLACK) baronet Thomas Sharpe, who still shares the family’s dilapidated estate with his sister Lucille. The second Edith arrives to Allerdale Hall, a former red clay mine and current death trap of building safety concerns, things go all sorts of wrong and it is up to Edith to figure out what exactly has she gotten herself into, just as the snow starts to fall and the red clay starts painting it the ominous red that lent the place the titular nickname, Crimson Peak.
What happens next is pretty predictable and still fun to watch, even if delivered in signature Del Toro clunky dialogue. Will someone please find the man a screenwriter so he’s not English-as-a-second-language destroying the otherwise fun storylines he comes up with? I can make this statement because English is MY second language, too, so foreigner to foreigner: Guillermo, it is time to give that dialogue writing dream up. The height of offense is when, in the middle of all the clumsy lines, a Mr. Rochester monologue is almost word-by-word brought into the mix, offering a clear contrast between the Bronte vs Del Toro skill sets when it comes to Gothic melodrama conversation.
The cast do their best dealing with what they’ve been served. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith (probably cast as a result of her recent sting as Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland herself) who is appropriately ethereal-yet-determined. Edward is Tom Hiddleston, working his cheekbones and watercolor eyes to their full effect, and Jessica Chastain’s Lucille, in her second Del Toro outing since Mama, walks away with the movie in hilariously over-the-top ways, casting threats and dispersion as casually as if they were everyday small talk. Out of everyone, she seems to both accept the ridiculous over-the-topness the most, and have the most fun with it, hamming and pouting it up and down the creaky stairs like some unholy spiritual cross between Mrs. Danvers and Lizzie Borden.
The visuals, of course, help. The characters (at least according to the movie posters) are assigned very clear visual identities: Wasikowska as a butterfly, Chastain as a moth, Hiddleston as a scarab. Their outfits, ruffles, high collars and strategically placed embellishments doing a near perfect job of keeping this obvious, if also obviously uncomfortable at times. And the house…the house is a character in and of itself, gorgeous, and unpredictable, pulsating with secrets and lies, at times it seems even more alive that the movie’s leads are. The house is where Del Toro is most in his element: he creates an immersive experience, where little details matter, where every nook and cranny is meticulously thought out, where horror and dread are as much in the shadows as in what we and the characters can see.
If only he’d pay as much attention to plots and dialogue. Well, there’s still time, I guess. For now, suspend all disbelief and enjoy Crimson Peak for what it is: a novelty Halloween candy, a little too artificial for everyday enjoyment, but hitting just the right spots this spooky time of year.