Del Toro has been a busy bee of late, writing The Hobbit film franchise, bringing his novel trilogy The Strain to the small screen, and pulling up the director’s chair to wave his wand at humanoid war machines in Pacific Rim. No one would argue that it wasn’t time for the horror connoisseur’s unique artistic creativity reminiscent in his early low-budget Spanish/Mexican works Cronos (1993) and Pans Labyrinth (2006) to manifest itself again with all its gothic splendour and dark, fantastical set pieces.
The time has come – only here, del Toro doesn’t have to be so modest. Written just after Pans Labyrinth was released, Crimson Peak is a big-budget, pull-out-all-the-stops period gothic ghost tale starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston.
Following her wealthy father’s death, aspiring writer Edith (Wasikowska) marries the charming Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), who whisks her away from life in a small American town to live with him and his sister Lucille (Chastain) in their medieval mansion in the English countryside. But not long after she crosses the threshold, ghostly visions haunt her new home and she is torn between her love for Tom and her curious will to unravel his dark family secret.
Reluctant to disappoint, Crimson Peak has all the tricks and tropes of a classic Victorian ghost story. Given grain, more humble sets and melodrama that exceeds the odd exaggerated knife slice, it would have slotted perfectly into Hammer Film’s 1950/60s catalogue.
Straddling fairytale and fantasy, it conveys the supernatural as a spectacle – something to be seen, not just heard. Del Toro opts for potently gruesome imagery to crawl under your skin and unsettle your soul instead of having you jump out of your seat and sweating profusely as The Woman in Black sold its soul to do. Grisly CGI’ed ghosts manifest from floorboards, pointing at things (clues, if you will), and blood oozes from walls. It’s a horror to rollick in, not cower away from, particularly as it broods more than scares – although a bloody bathroom sink scene should whet a gore fans appetite early on.
Its strictly conventional, no-nonsense narrative could be more ambitious – less predictable too – but the story is well told: logically paced and not one for time wasting, wrapped up in a tightly packed two hours.
And there’s plenty to hold your attention elsewhere.
Chastain shines brightest as Thomas Sharpe’s wickedly cold sister, although Wasikowska is her typically alluringly self, while Hiddleston makes his on-screen transition from Thor’s devious Loki to the charming, seductive front man with poise.
The real headline, though, is how it looks. Doing what he does best, del Toro creates a visual masterpiece. Huge, electrifying – perhaps even over-elaborate – sets are gothic gold. The ruins of the imposing mansion lie at the film’s heart with its decaying exterior, leaf-filled, wood-carved staircase and perforated roof letting snow pitter-patter on its grandiose entrance. If your winter film isn’t a blood-bath affair, stain the surrounding blankets of snow with the crimson-red clay that seeps up through it, of course. Oh and make it pour out of the bath taps too.
The red popping against the bleach-white snow is striking, as are the rich hues of Victorian-era dress and ornate décor. For a gothic film, it’s a surprisingly colourful affair – it is a del Toro film after all. Even in the dimly lit, shadowy shots that carry the film’s bleakness, nothing ever disappears into darkness completely. What it does demand from your TV or projector, probably more so than high contrast, is the ability to dig up dark detail.
If you can see it in IMAX – better still through the new IMAX laser projection system at Empire’s Leicester Square – it’ll be worth paying extra.
While more of a visual overload than an audio one, Fernando Velázquez’s beautiful score, steeped in evocatively towering orchestrations, forms the perfect duet. It demands size and scale from your sound system.
Exaggerated sounds pierce the eerie silence – in this respect, the final cat-and-mouse showdown is quite the romp – so no stone is left unturned when it comes to melodrama.
Crimson Peak is by no means flawless, but it’s a gargantuan effort from the Mexican maestro, who manages to hone in on cinema’s rich adoration for ghost stories and make a truly magnificent spectacle unique for its time.