Guillermo Del Toro is doomed by the breadth of his imagination. His lurid visions require big budgets to realize but they’re often too literary, too niche to appeal to the broad audiences needed to recoup those expenses. As a result, he’s having increasing amounts of trouble getting his pet projects greenlit. No surprise then that Universal Pictures did his latest, Crimson Peak, an enormous disservice by trying to sell it with an overstuffed trailer that made it look like a straightforward horror movie. It’s not. It’s an old-school Gothic (with a capital G) romance whose apparitions are just extensions of the fevered psychological torments experienced by its cast of pathologically repressed characters, many of whom occupy undesirable positions on a sliding scale of sanity. That is not to say that the ghosts in the movie are imagined. It’s just that they’re far from the sole focus of the narrative. People complain about movies that are all style and no substance but fail to recognize that in some films, the style IS the substance. Crimson Peak is the spectacular culmination of Del Toro’s cultural obsessions; from the Bronte sisters and Hammer horror films to 19th century penny dreadfuls and Mary Shelley, they’re all present and accounted for in this operatic celebration of Grand Guignol excess.
The title is itself a nod to the stylistic flourishes of Gothic literature, referring to an ancestral home on a desolate English hillside comprised of blood-red clay. In keeping with Gothic tradition, the rambling mansion is now half-ruined, a giant hole in the roof letting in snow and bugs, the stairs creaky and treacherous, the rooms dark and dank. It’s also sinking slowly into the hilltop, causing the red clay to ooze up through the ground and down the walls like semi-clotted blood. The house is an absolute marvel of production design and lunatic imagination, well suited to the events that occur within its walls. It belongs to the last remnants of the once-wealthy Sharpe family — handsome, consumptive-looking engineer Thomas (Tom Hiddleston, naturally) and his predatory sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, of course). After a suitably cryptic pre-credits sequence, the film kicks off in turn-of-the-century Buffalo, where aspiring novelist Edith (Mia Wasikowska, her usual combination of fragile and determined) is caught in a love triangle between local doctor Alan (Charlie Hunnam) and Thomas. The latter is in Buffalo to persuade Edith’s father to invest in a machine that can harvest the red clay under Crimson Peak but the deal falls through under less-than-wholesome circumstances. This doesn’t stop Thomas from returning to England with new bride Edith in tow. It doesn’t, however, take long for her to suspect that all is not well at Crimson Peak. Chastain is indispensable to this end and all others, conjuring up a character that now occupies a place of honor in my personal canon of movie monsters. A human being more intimidating than a houseful of ghosts, she stalks around the mansion in severe-looking gowns, brandishing household objects like they were medieval weapons, coming across like the world’s most passive-aggressive jailer. Edith, finding herself in the middle of a distinctly peculiar relationship between brother and sister, resolves to find out their story and, while she’s at it, the one behind the leering ghost that keeps climbing out of the upstairs bathtub.
Del Toro doesn’t work overtime to keep these secrets hidden. Anyone who’s read a few of Victorian literature’s choicer morsels will guess what’s going on ahead of time. His goal, ultimately, is to transplant a different era of popular culture into a contemporary, digitally-inflected medium, a feat he pulls off through filmmaking that’s stylized even by his standards. It’s fan-fiction on a massive scale, throwing out call-backs to one seminal text after another from one minute to the next. If the first act, playing out under the shadow of the looming Industrial Age, is a bit of American realism a la Edith Wharton (name-checked via Wasikowska’s character), the ghost story is inspired by movies like The Innocents or Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations and by the work of Sheridan Le Fanu, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James and Bram Stoker, while the psychosexual undercurrents come straight from the pens of the poetically doomed Bronte sisters. Such endless tribute and pastiche is difficult to execute without lapsing into boring and superficial duplication but Del Toro lives and breathes this stuff, injecting it with the dynamism of mainstream cinema and recasting its palette in the primary colors of the digital era. Crimson Peak’s tragedy—and a film like this has to have tragedy associated with it even at a meta level—is that the cultural milieu it so lovingly recreates no longer commands the attention it once used to. It’s one giant inside reference, preaching to a select choir of initiates hopelessly entangled from birth in its post-colonial trappings. Everyone else just fails to realize that the Victorians didn’t do jump scares.