Nineteenth-century Gothic has rarely looked so sumptuous as it does in Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” a lusciously atmospheric period homage to such classics as “Wuthering Heights,” “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca” that also manages to integrate reminiscences of “Gaslight,” “Notorious,” “The Shining” and even “Dragonwyck” into the mix. It’s a pity that the incredibly silly narrative is nowhere near as imaginative as the visuals: to put it in architectural terms, the mystery is in the off-limits basement, and there’s not much going on upstairs.
Del Toro has made much of wanting to present strong female characters, but in reality the heroine here, would-be author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is a bit of a late nineteenth-century wimp. She’s the pampered daughter of wealthy Buffalo bigwig Carter (Jim Beaver), and her only trouble seems to be that she’s occasionally visited by the ghost of her dead mother, who warns her to avoid Crimson Peak, whatever that means. Her life changes when, ignoring the obvious infatuation of handsome young Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), she falls for British baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who’s visiting the States with his icy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) to raise funds to complete a machine that will excavate the red Cumberland clay on which his homestead, Allerdale Hall, sits. When Carter discovers that Sharpe is nothing more than a gold-digger, he blackmails him into leaving Buffalo, but shortly dies, very bloodily, in the gym at his club.
His death—an obvious murder that’s dismissed with a cavalier lack of logic as an accident—leaves Edith able to take off for England with Thomas, bringing her large inheritance along as well. But Allerdale quickly proves to be less the splendid estate than expected—there’s a huge hole in the ceiling that lets in the cold and snow, and the place, situated on a high hill, is literally sinking into the crimson clay. Lucille, meanwhile, is less than hospitable, constantly serving poor Edith cups of strangely bitter tea even as the newlywed is called upon to sign away her wealth to her husband. Even more to the point, Edith begins to experience creepy apparitions that drive her to the mansion’s gloomy cellar, where cauldrons of churning red clay and travel luggage from unknown women (along with some pre-Edison recorded rolls that conveniently provide a lot of background information) are stored. Meanwhile, back in New York, besotted Alan investigates the Sharpe family background, and his findings take him to England in search of poor Edith.
Del Toro’s script—written in collaboration with Matthew Robbins—is really nothing but a pastiche, a collection of treasured moments remembered from movies he obviously adores, stitched together into an illogical story that offers virtually no surprises; even the big reveal toward the close is a ho-hum business. What it does provide are myriad opportunities to let his visual imagination run riot. Working together with his craft contributors—production designer Tom Sanders, art director Brandt Gordon, set decorators Shane Viaeu and Jeffrey A. Melvin, costume designer Kate Hawley and special effects supervisor Dennis Berardi—he fashions gorgeous images, which are captured in lush, coordinated colors by cinematographer Dan Laustsen. It’s a look that hasn’t been seen to such luminous effect since Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Dracula, and it’s accompanied by a moody score from Fernando Velazquez. Del Toro also elects to put his signature on the film with repeated shots of the insects—butterflies, moths, ants, flies—that are a virtual personal motif.
But while the pictorial pizzazz results in some absolutely striking moments—like a shot of footsteps in newly-fallen snow turning blood-red from the clay beneath, or that of the liquefied clay in the basement cauldrons sitting like vats of heavy tomato soup, or another of blood oozing airily out of a ghost’s wound—they’re never incorporated into a narrative that’s effective from either a nineteenth-century perspective or a twenty-first century one. There are moments in “Crimson Peak” that are obviously intended to be darkly humorous, for example—like the sequence in which Lucille show Edith a portrait of her hideous mother—but they fail to register simply because the entire surrounding story is so arch and ludicrous. And there are moments that are gory but aren’t remotely scary; for a picture being advertised as a horror movie, it certainly offers few shocks.
Things aren’t helped by incredibly stilted acting. The only person who escapes the woodenness is Beaver (Bobby on “Supernatural”), whose genteel gruffness brings a fleeting touch of reality to the proceedings. By contrast Wasikowska, who’s been so strong in her recent films, comes across little better than a high school girl might in an amateur period pageant, and Chastain really should have known better than to mimic Judith Anderson’s classic Mrs. Danvers—a thankless task. Hiddleston, as is becoming increasingly usual for him, is simply dull as Sharpe, and Hunnam is even blander as the stick-figure would-be rescuer of the damsel in distress.
One can’t be overly critical of the actors, however; the fact is that Del Toro is basically using them as bits of human furniture in his intricately constructed mise-en-scene. In the end “Crimson Peak” becomes just a succession of carefully arranged images that in their consummate artificiality are like a cinematic diorama, devoid of any authentic human feeling. The result is a haunted mansion that from moment to moment is pretty to look at but turns out to be utterly empty inside.