By the time Mia Wasikowska finishes her opening voiceover, you know exactly how Crimson Peak will go down.
Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic romance, out this Friday, doesn’t just wear its influences on its sleeve. (A “foreword” from the director handed out at the press screening cites Dragonwyck, as well as classic-era Hollywood adaptations of Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Great Expectations, and there are whiffs of an entire English major’s worth of literary classics throughout, from Wuthering Heights to “The Fall of the House of Usher.”) It splices them all together and serves them up to the viewer in a smooth, Vitamixed blend. And while Crimson Peak may not add up to more than the sum of its parts, it’s hard to go wrong with parts as tried and true as these, particularly when they’re assembled with del Toro’s signature panache.
On its face, Crimson Peak is a significant departure from del Toro’s last feature, 2013’s robots-vs.-aliens cult hit Pacific Rim. But like Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak is a well-studied homage to an established genre, one that’s not particularly interested in adding anything new but makes up for it in both visual style and loving attention to its source material. Crimson Peak merely swaps out anime and people-powered superweapons for haunted mansions and lace. So much lace.
Before the color palette saturates into the black, white, and red all over of a North England mansion sitting on top of a clay mine, we begin in late-19th-century Buffalo, where wealthy heiress Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is hard at work on her novel. (It’s not a ghost story, it just has ghosts in it.) She steers clear of men until the tall, dark, and handsome baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) rolls into town with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to raise capital for his mining business. Edith’s father (Jim Beaver) disapproves, but before he can tell her why, he dies of a tragic case of face-smashing — and because Edith is a film protagonist and not an actual person, her reservations go away instead of through the roof. Thomas proposes, and off to England she goes.
Despite repeated warnings from her mother’s ghost to “beware of Crimson Peak” — oh yeah, Edith can see and hear the dead — our heroine doesn’t seem bothered in the slightest when she learns that Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe family’s ancestral home, is built atop a deposit of “scarlet clay,” a plot device that makes muddy floorboards look like they’re oozing blood. Edith’s a sharp one, though: once she sees a screaming corpse claw its way out of the floor, she knows something’s up.
That clay doesn’t just give Crimson Peak its name; as the first of many details to trade realism for visual impact, it’s emblematic of del Toro’s approach. In the same foreword that cites Jane Eyre, an inspiration made all the more obvious by Wasikowska’s starring role in its most recent adaptation, del Toro writes, “Crimson Peak is designed to be gorgeous and beautiful, not only as eye candy but as eye protein.” And while the phrase “eye protein” — gross — made me grateful del Toro brought on veteran writer Matthew Robbins as co-author for the screenplay, Crimson Peak delivers on his promise to go big, high, and grand.
The result is packed with stylistic flourishes that value drama over practicality, starting with clay that turns the entire set into a crime scene. Allerdale has a massive hole in its ceiling that goes un-patched, the better to let in gorgeous, slo-mo snowdrifts; Chastain’s character is supposedly near-penniless but sports elaborate, multilayered getups at all times. And the house itself is crammed with gilt, candelabrae, and fixtures that look suspiciously like teeth, creating an effect that’s half Disney’s Haunted Mansion and half demented wedding cake.
You could stare at Crimson Peak for hours, and as Edith figures out what’s up with her… suspiciously close husband and sister-in-law, that’s exactly what the viewer does. Wasikowska, Hiddleston, and Chastain all give fine performances — they’re all fine actors, and then some — but they’re playing out roles that were drafted over a century ago (though the finale leaves Edith with a hefty dose of slasher film final girl in addition to Gothic heroine). Allerdale Hall, and the blood-and-bones ghosts that occupy it, is the film’s true centerpiece.
Crimson Peak isn’t all melodrama. Del Toro is aware that his aesthetic borders on camp, and deals with it by building in the occasional, intentional laugh — most of which, surprisingly, come from Chastain’s dour, unwelcoming Lucille. But melodrama isn’t a bad thing, particularly when embraced as passionately as it is here. When Guillermo del Toro loves a genre, the enthusiasm proves infectious.
Crimson Peak is out in wide release on Friday, October 16th.