The most frightening thing in Crimson Peak is not a ghostly apparition or graphic bloody violence, but the majestic centerpiece of a set: a dilapidated mansion estate in rural England that also serves as a clay mining facility.
In the mansion’s foyer, snow gently falls through an opening in the ceiling and gathers in an eerie circle in the middle of the room. The basement keeps vats of thick, blood-red clay, covered under lock by grating. The stuff slowly oozes down the walls, giving the impression that the house is literally dripping blood.
In the front yard, a giant piece of harvesting equipment with grinding gears emits a deafening howl while scooping up the blood-clay, which soaks through the light blanket of snow whenever someone takes a step.
Crimson Peak’s mansion is gorgeous and eerie and memorably rich and detailed: it’s the most striking piece of production design yet from director Guillermo Del Toro, who reached previous highs in films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the surrounding film doesn’t live up to its immaculate central set.
Peak begins in the turn-of-the-century US, where Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) runs a successful company of some description while his daughter Edith (Mia Wasikowska) attempts to get her ghost-story novel published – despite gender politics that dictate what she can write about.
Beaver, best known, perhaps, from HBO’s Deadwood, is the best thing about the film’s early scenes with his grizzled but entirely sympathetic turn as the father. Charlie Hunnam, who previously starred in director Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, is also likable as a potential suitor for Edith.
But when dashing English gentleman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) rides into town with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to attempt to secure clay-mining financing from Carter’s company, he soon sets his sights on Edith as well.
Soon we’re at that remote mansion, where the young girl has to deal not just with Thomas and his creepy sister, who may not be on the up-and-up, but also the ghosts of previous residents who have returned to tell Edith… something.
There are a lot of things a filmmaker can use to instill fear in the audience. I’ll tell you what isn’t scary: a Roger Rabbit cartoon. We know what’s coming because one of the very first scenes features a cut-rate animated ghost (‘played’ by Del Toro stalwart Doug Jones), but whenever the supernatural entities appear on screen here, the film turns into The Haunted Mansion.
While the ghosts aren’t scary, they are, let’s say, amusing. Del Toro uses CGI to fill his haunted house with all sorts of eye candy, and though the film doesn’t work on the level of 1960 haunted house movies like The Haunting or The Innocents, it is a beautiful thing to look at. I’m not a fan of style over substance, but the sets in Crimson Peak kept me watching while interest in the story waned.
It’s not really a horror film, anyway, though Del Toro’s use of color reminds me a lot of the work of Mario Bava or Dario Argento (Suspiria, especially). Story-wise, Crimson Peak is straightforward mystery, with the caveat that we have a pretty good idea of what the mystery is by the end of the first act.
At one time, the template for these things was Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, where anyone could be the killer. Now it’s Scooby Doo: through genre convention and economy of character, we always know who the killer is (hint: it’s usually the one with the most screen time, and the least relevance to the story). And they would have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for those darn kids.
If I had never seen one of these things before, Crimson Peak might have surprised me. Well, at least it’s pretty to look at. For fans of 60s horror, from Mario Bava to Hammer to Vincent Price and Roger Corman, Del Toro’s latest is a guilty pleasure treat.
In the original Haunting, when the supposed supernatural entity banged on those bedroom doors, we were terrified of what was behind them. In Crimson Peak, when the ghost banged on the doors I was ambivalent towards the ghost, but took notice of those great-looking gothic doors, with years of history written into their worn paint. It’s not scary, but it’s something.