Halloween fare has never been more atmospheric. Even minus the graveyards, “Crimson Peak” production designer, Thomas E. Sanders, sweeps us into the gothic romance with a roofless Bronte-like mansion and Tim-Burton-like ghouls, though they are carmine-hued rather than blue-black. In contrast to Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”, this house has already fallen to matricide,incest and its subsequent poorly developed progeny. The dilapidated Allendale Hall is sometimes referred to as Crimson Peak since its red-blood clay seeps into cellars,walls and the surrounding winter snow.Add glorious silk and tulle costuming and the genre’s conventional hauntings and shadows and the viewer is spellbound.
Director Guillermo del Toro has written the tale with Matthews Roberts,and some modern slash and gore does nothing to offset the more conventional fluttering moth swarms and dead beetles and the heavy breathing (my favorite). Cinematographer Dan Laurtsen works in copperish light,too. Burnt sienna glows;ink-stained fingers and mutton-sleeved blouses and netted faces are massaged by his camera work. Be forewarned,there are a few brutal displays especially,in a steamy club bathroom where a porcelain sink does our protagonist Edith’s father in. The pompous Carter Cushing is worldly-wise and Jim Beaver plays him as a father protecting his only daughter,but with a dash of a man used to getting his way. Beaver’s voice seemed out-of-place and time in this haunting genre. “My will is as strong as yours..” left no room for the ghostly. His poking fun at Sir Thomas’ Baronet title added another touch,American homophobia.
Circular vats of red slime hold the past wives of scammer Sir Thomas Sharpe(Tom Hiddleston). His older sister,Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) controls her brother until he falls in love with his third attempt to “save the family’s estate”. Mia Wasikowska plays Sir Thomas’ third wife, a romance novelist who prefers writing ghost stories. As Edith Cushing, she has already lost her father, a wealthy investor, to the brutal bashing of Lucille. Unsavory Sharpe family factoids reported by Mr. Cushing’s hired private investigator required his fast demise in Buffalo, New York. Now, though warned by her dead mother and by her young doctor to avoid “Crimson Peaks”, Edith leaves for England with Sir Thomas,as a lamb to slaughter.
Jiggling door handles,heavily carved corridors and a caged elevator amid gaslights add to the creepy estate scene. More fragile black moths and ants consuming anguished butterflies chain us with savage nature and our link to it. Yet, earlier scenes are almost a comedy of manners. During an initial rose-hued waltz scene,the mother of the young doctor McMichael tries to hold on to her son and keep young Edith at bay,she delivers my favorite “tongue in cheek line” : “Everyone has their place,I’ll help you find yours.” Every cheek bone turn underscores a “proceed with caution” sign,and our Edith is still in Buffalo.
This layering on of danger themes is rather hodgepodge, yet fun to follow. The attic nursery, the spiked tea, the latent ghostly photographs, and red running bath water all come before Sir Thomas actually falls in love with Edith and confesses that he was bribed by her father to devastate her by breaking her heart. Thomas’ critique of her writing as that of a spoiled child who has little understanding of love or the human heart is the apt crush.
Still Jessica Chastain’s cold and mad Lucille steals the show. As the unblinking caretaker from hell with poisoned porridge emotes the dictum , “monstrous love makes monsters of us all” and settles the haze. With a pen for an easy weapon, Lucille stabs her lover/brother in the face when he intervenes on Edith’s behalf. Lucille’s raspy “sign your bloody name” does not produce. With lots of 1896 floor-writhing,a foot chase,and a shovel slam, we are left with a save from the young Dr. McMichael. Viewers won’t be bored,but this film could have been more than a visual feast with horror cliches. See Guillermo’s “Mama” for fresher zombie material.