Guillermo del Toro, the director behind films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, returns to the horror genre after the spectacle of Pacific Rim for an old fashioned ghost story.
Crimson Peak is one of the most gorgeously appointed films I’ve seen in years. The costumes are incredible and every design element is superbly well realised. That all comes together in the house where most of the action takes place, Allerdale Hall.
The entire three storey house was built at the Pinewood Toronto Studios with full practical lighting, a working lift and a massive central atrium open to the air and the elements. And it really is the star of the show, from its red-lined basement to stifling attic. This house breathes and entraps and bleeds – thanks to the scarlet clay which gives the film its name.
Next to all that gothic gorgeousness you also have the story of a young writer (Mia Wasikowska) and the alluring Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). There’s an intricate web of relationships going on, also including Jessica Chastain and Charlie Hunnam, and action in New York and the wilds of Cumbria.
del Toro wants the film to be a mixture of romance and horror and those elements are certainly in place. The spectres which haunt Allerdale are terrifically tangible things, calling to mind the monsters he’s conjured up before, especially the Pale Man of Pan’s Labyrinth. And his approach to ghosts remains utterly unique in the way they’re built into the world of the film, rather than just inserted to create scares.
There are some creepy moments certainly, accompanied by several startling bursts of brutal violence which I wasn’t expecting. But the film doesn’t really define itself as a horror, and genre fans will find it lacking in real scares.
Likewise the love story never really finds its feet. It’s clear we’re supposed to be enthralled by a triangle between three of these characters but we never really get to see that passion on screen, and the movie takes so long to get to Allerdale (almost half the film is spent in New York) that there’s little time for anything else to develop.
Crimson Peak is caught between two genres then, and it doesn’t satisfy either. On the one hand there’s a real lack of proper scares and the love story is indifferently developed. A bigger issue is that the film has been promoted as more of a gothic romance and audiences looking for that story could be truly horrified by the instances of lurid violence. I was surprised it earned a 15A rating.
The cast is giving it their all, especially Chastain in an unusually full-throated performance. Emma Stone and Benedict Cumberbatch were originally cast in the roles now inhabited by Wasikowska and Hiddleston and the replacements are infinitely better suited, though I can’t see either pairing producing much chemistry.
Crimson Peak has been brewing in del Toro’s mind for almost 10 years and as a filmmaker who often has his projects cancelled I’m pleased to see him finally release a new feature. But the result doesn’t quite work due to some awkward genre mixing, a fairly slight story and overlong running time. Still, it’s one of the best –looking films of the year and worth a watch, especially if you’re in the mood for a ghost story.