Genre kingpin Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” is over-the-top, silly, and hard to take very seriously, yet it’s also a marvelously entertaining slice of gothic melodrama.
Here is an epic-scale, immaculately designed haunted house film without many scares, set in the late 1800s and featuring a cast of acting heavyweights.
It is, then, entirely out of touch with modern horror film conventions. That is intentional, for as the “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” filmmaker tweeted, “‘Crimson Peak’ (is) not a horror film. A gothic romance. Creepy, tense, but full of emotion.”
While it can’t be classified as a horror film, “Peak” is not without its jolts. It is also not without some scenes of shocking violence, and, typical of a del Toro film, great humor. (Most of it seemingly intentional.)
The film starts, oddly enough, in “Buffalo, N.Y.,” and the packed screening audience erupted in cheers as the location appeared on the screen. It is here that aspiring author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) lives with her wealthy father (Jim Beaver, “Deadwood”).
The family home is also where Edith sees her first spirit (“Ghosts are real,” she states at film’s start), that of her late mother. She spews a mysterious warning: “Beware of Crimson Peak.”
Enter Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), owners of a crumbling, baroque mansion above a red clay mine in England. The former is seeking funding for a new mining device, and calls on Buffalo’s elite for support, including Edith’s father.
The group is unimpressed, but Sir Thomas makes an impression on Edith. Soon, they are in love, and following a tragedy are off to the U.K. This saddens her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”), who harbors suspicions about Sharpe’s real intentions.
The Sharpe mansion is … charmingly decayed? Slightly, but more scary and drafty than anything else. And within minutes of her arrival, Edith is contending with the spirits that dwell there. She also must contend with the coldness of her sister-in-law, and what’s in that tea they keep forcing on her?
The truth about Thomas, Lucille and their pasts becomes clear as the film progresses, and none of it is particularly surprising. But in the hands of del Toro, it is suspenseful, immaculately shot, and always wacky. Consider this a solid comeback after the deeply disappointing giant robot-extravaganza “Pacific Rim.”
Due to that wackiness, “Crimson Peak” is not particularly involving on an emotional level. Wasikowska is mostly stuck in two modes, clueless or suspicious, and the likable young star of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” acquits herself well. So too does the steel-jawed Hunnam, in an underwritten role.
The real stars of “Crimson Peak,” though, are Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. Hiddleston is simultaneously heartfelt and sinister – he’d make a fine Mr. Rochester someday – while Chastain is delightfully unhinged. (This is a far, far different performance than the one she just gave in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.”)There are holes aplenty in the script by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, and this requires one to simply accept the shenanigans, and go along for the ride. That’s not hard, since the film looks and sounds so glorious, bringing to mind Francis Ford Coppola’s similarly sumptuous “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”
Like Coppola’s “Dracula,” “Crimson Peak” is not the terrifying creation some anticipated, but certainly a wildly pleasurable experience. Neither a “Pan’s Labyrinth”-esque masterpiece or a “Pacific Rim”-style failure, “Crimson” is a delicious bowl of Brontë stew, with CGI ghosts and dripping blood tossed in for good measure.
Plus, it’s a rare big-screen representation of Pan-American Exposition-era Buffalo, with references to Bidwell Parkway and Masten Park. Buffalo references, ghosts and a crazed Chastain. How fun is that?
3 stars (out of four)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Running time: 119 minutes
Rating: R for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.
The Lowdown: After a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for a childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider.
Story topics: Guillermo del Toro