Few would disagree that Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s kinetic 2013 homage to the kaiju genre didn’t really seem a comfortable fit with the director’s more stylised, warped, angular sensibilities. Happily he – and his audience – are back on firmer ground in Crimson Peak, a gorgeous, lavish Gothic thriller which is part Hammer horror (although arguably it’s not really a horror movie at all), part classic Roger Corman and, in the end, absolutely Guillermo del Toro. It’s not, however, classic del Toro – it’s no Pan’s Labyrinth or Devil’s Backbone - but it’s probably close enough to reassure fans worried that their hero might be abandoning the weird and succumbing to the allure of the mainstream.
Set somewhere in the Victorian era, the film tells of budding American writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), romanced by the plausible, if slightly shabby, English baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), in America to schmooze her rich father into helping finance his claypit mining operations. Circumstances lead Edith, who has fallen for Thomas’s charms and married him, to move to his remote family home in cold, windswept Northern England. This is the crumbling, forbidding Allerdale Hall – a dump by any other name – and Edith tries to adapt to married life in a house sinking into the red clay deposits on which it’s built and which intermittently ooze up between the floorboards. Then there’s Thomas’s brooding sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and the little matter of the skeletal wraith-like spectres appearing out of nowhere warning Edith to beware Crimson Peak – the house’s nickname.
This is very much del Toro indulging his love of big, blousy Gothic ghost/haunted house stories. He brings his very specific visual aesthetic to a lurid story, populating it with characters straight out of the cheapest Penny Dreadful and dropping them into a stunningly-designed nightmare world full of creaking metal elevators, clanging pipes and snow and leaves gusting in through the house’s gaping roof. It’s the production design and the extraordinary attention to detail in both the sets and the costumes which will most impress about Crimson Peak because despite its twists and turns and occasional jolts and sublime, awkward violence, the story itself has little of the subtlety and nuance of del Toro’s more memorable movies; here he’s out not to scare or unsettle us but to tell us a story about lies and duplicity and ambition with a few generic ghosts thrown in for good measure.
But that’s not to say it isn’t hugely entertaining. Hiddleston, stepping out of Loki’s shadow, is a strong and commanding leading man but the film really belongs to Jessica Chastain in a role quite literally a million miles or more away from her turn as the guilt-ridden commander of the Hermes II in last month’s The Martian. Here she’s almost unrecognisable and if there’s any hair-raising to be done by Crimson Peak, Chastain’s the one to do it with her cold, callous malevolence.
Crimson Peak is in many ways del Toro on ‘auto pilot’ but when his destination is so richly-drawn and magnificently atmospheric, we’re inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt in perhaps aiming a little lower than the heights we know, from past experience, he’s easily able to reach. A visual treat allied to a gripping, if hardly ground-breaking story, Crimson Peak is a fun, shivery thrill but ultimately likely to fall short of the classic return-to-form status we might have been expecting or hoping for.
CRIMSON PEAK / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: GUILLERMO DEL TORO / SCREENPLAY: GIUILLERMO DEL TORO, MATTHEW ROBBINS / STARRING: MIA WASIKOWSKA, JESSICA CHASTAIN, TOM HIDDLESTON, CHARLIE HUNNAM, JIM BEAVER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 9 out of 10Actual Rating: