A once prolific director, the last decade has been a relatively quiet one for Guillermo del Toro, lured into the cul-de-sac of The Hobbit on which he invested much time and energy but which ultimately passed back to Peter Jackson, although del Toro retained credit as a producer on that trilogy.
As a result, though he has been involved as an executive producer on a half dozen other projects over the last ten years, his only direct output has been 2006’s acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth, 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army and 2013’s technically accomplished but empty rattling tin can Pacific Rim, so to say Crimson Peak is one of his best films in a decade is not as high praise as might be hoped.
Edith Cushing (Only Lovers Left Alive and The Double‘s Mia Wasikowska), daughter of industrialist Carter Cushing (Justified‘s Jim Beaver) has believed in ghosts since she was ten years old when her late mother came to her on the night of her funeral to issue a warning: “When the time comes, beware of Crimson Peak.”
With the foreshadowing of a gothic novel of the period it recreates, Edith herself is more interested in her writing than finding a husband to whom she could be a good wife, despite the frosty glances from disapproving society dames who mock her eccentric interests. “Our very own Jane Austen – she died a spinster.” “I would prefer to be Mary Shelley,” Edith responds, “she died a widow.”
Yet Edith is charmed by the directed interest of Sir Thomas Sharpe (The Avengers‘ Tom Hiddleston), in town with his reserved sister Lucille (Interstellar‘s Jessica Chastain giving another chameleon transformation) seeking audience with Carter in order to obtain financing for new machinery to mine the scarlet clay of his estate in England.
Carter disapproves of the fraternisation of Sir Thomas and his daughter and refuses the finance, but with his sudden death there is no obstacle, and sole heir to his fortune Edith marries and emigrates to England to take up residence in the crumbling Allerdale Hall, leaving behind her childhood friend Doctor Alan McMichael (Sons of Anarchy‘s Charlie Hunnam) to investigate his suspicions about the circumstances of her departure.
The greatest burden of the film is its running time which has insufficient event to come close to filling the two hours. Edith rejected her publisher’s note to include love as a plot in her stories and del Toro should have paid heed to his own advice, for though it is the relationship between Edith and Thomas which underpins the story it could have been achieved more swiftly to the same end.
With the appearance of the ghosts matching those of del Toro’s 2001 El espinazo del diablo, there are too many needless and ineffective jump scares and with a plot so obviously derivative there can be few surprises, yet every revelation is laboured despite having been telegraphed even to those who do not know the source material, particularly as Wasikowska has already played Jane Eyre in 2011.
While at least one of the central trio of Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain is on screen almost permanently the whole cast are underused, particularly Hunnam with whom del Toro worked on Pacific Rim (seen in a supporting role there, Torchwood‘s Burn Gorman performs the same function here though with considerably more dignity), all seeming secondary in importance to the magnificent sets through which they endlessly drift.
As would be expected of Guillermo del Toro, every aspect of the design is utterly impeccable and like Robert Wise’s The Haunting, the buildings have presence and character, Edith’s bedroom reminding of the nursery of Hill House, her golden hair and vibrant yellow dress the only life in the rooms of crumbling Allerdale Hall where the walls bleed the red sludge of the clay into which it is sinking.
With Doctor McMichael suggesting that certain mineral compositions in soil could retain ghosts in the same manner as latent images in photographs, an idea central to Nigel Kneale’s Stone Tape, more pronounced are the echoes of Peter Medak’s 1980 haunted house masterpiece starring George C Scott, The Changeling.
With the child murders and séance of that film already having been channeled in the del Toro produced El Orfanato (2007), present here are the bathtub, the attic room with the porthole window and the wheelchair as well as the rubber ball scene, the recreation neither as effective nor as disturbing as the original, though perhaps that was not del Toro’s intention, his preferred emphasis always on the visual delight of his works rather than atmosphere.
Crimson Peak is now on general release and also screening in IMAX