Guillermo del Toro’s recent movie history is haunted by so many half-formed projects, it’s become something of an event whenever he gets a film into cinemas.
His last, 2013’s Pacific Rim, offered blockbusting robots vs. monsters thrills, but only after the Mexican auteur had stumbled around Hobbiton for two years before exiting without a movie to show for it – small wonder he then almost lost his marbles At The Mountains Of Madness, a project that’s still in limbo. And with Pacific Rim 2 now in a holding pattern, Crimson Peak should be a cause for celebration.
Sadly the party’s only half warranted, even if del Toro’s ninth feature sees a welcome return to horror. Over a decade on from Pan’s Labyrinth and Cronos, there’s been much talk of this being the director’s first adult movie in the English language (no robots fighting monsters here).
For all its unforgiving violence, gothic romance and haunted house hijinks, though, Crimson Peak struggles to match the vigour of the director’s Spanish-language films. At times it’s almost phantasmal in comparison, an insubstantial echo of those superior efforts.
Still, del Toro effectively sets out his goth stock early on. We meet the waif-like Edith (Mia Wasikowska) stumbling through a snow storm, beaten, ghostly pale, her hands smeared scarlet. A flashback invites us into her childhood, where her mother’s sinister spectre hisses a warning: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” Between the gorgeous, rain-soaked cinematography and textured production design, these early, period spook scenes contain compelling nods back to del Toro’s great ghost story, The Devil’s Backbone.
Somewhat boldly, a sharp first-act tonal shift (signalled by a shot of a storybook opening in classic Disney style) quickly sweeps Crimson Peak into the ballrooms and creaky mansions of grim fairytales. Before her snow storm walk and now in her 20s, wannabe author Edith may have a father (Jim Beaver), but she’s ostensibly a bookish Cinderella, mocked by clownish socialites, mooned over by Charlie Hunnam’s strapping doctor, and dreaming of a life removed from turn-of-the-century New York. Oh, and she sees dead people.
That her Prince Charming is waxen inventor Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) is a neat twist, but his romantic gestures inspire narrative stutters. It can be no mistake that Edith balks at her publisher’s suggestion she add a love story to her manuscript – Crimson Peak is the first time del Toro has tackled romance face on, and the result is stilted, hampered by hammy dialogue and a sped-up timeline that gives the relationship little room to breathe.
A midpoint shift into haunted house territory doesn’t help. The big problem is the film’s mystery. Centred around the shadowy pasts of Thomas and his brooding sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain channeling Norma Bates), the twists are signposted early on, the surprises bogged down in cliché and melodrama.
These narrative shortcomings are particularly frustrating given the strength of del Toro’s vision. No matter what the script’s doing, feverish creativity fills every frame, not least when Edith, newly betrothed to Thomas, moves to Cumberland, England to live with him and his sister.
Here, she discovers the crumbling ruin that is Allerdale Hall. She’s soon visited by tortured, blood-red apparitions, and they are the film’s spectral treat; an artful, unnerving blend of real and CGI puppetry. Meanwhile, the mansion set – constructed at Pinewood Studios in Toronto – is a marvel of horror movie engineering; grand, claustrophobic, a groaning monster that consumes its occupants.
There’s invention, too, in the clockwork precision of del Toro’s efforts behind the camera. While Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen lenses Allerdale Hall in swampy greens and fiery reds (a tribute to Italian filmmaker Mario Bava), some of Crimson Peak’s most effective tension-cranking scenes are scored not by composer Fernando Velázquez, but the monotonous pumping of an industrial clay machine.
If ghosts really are, in Edith’s words, “a metaphor for the past,” the metaphor gets somewhat confused in Crimson Peak. Is this a story about the past coming to bear on the present? Of love conquering all? The industrial revolution? It’s never really clear, and while Wasikowska is a solid heroine, Hiddleston and Chastain are shackled by roles made frustratingly opaque by the clunky mystery. Del Toro’s artistry is definitely something to celebrate, but there’s one thing about Crimson Peak that’s unforgivable – it’s just not scary.