Crimson Peak is Guillermo del Toro's ravishing valentine to the Hammer Films subgenre of horror, Gothic in form and sensual in spirit. The movie drips with lurid style and symbolism, usually played one arched eyebrow shy of camp, and more fun when it isn't.
Del Toro has dipped into this bloodwell before but seldom with such gusto, resurrecting a style that many moviegoers aren't familiar with. Horror is an impatient person's game these days, and Crimson Peak isn't hurried at all. It seduces with creepily erotic atmosphere, and performances in perfect tune with the script's melodrama.
There must be a virgin, in this case aspiring ghost story author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a New York debutante smitten with visiting Englishman Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), to the obvious disapproval of his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Edith's father (Jim Beaver) uncovers evidence that Thomas is already married, bribing him to return to England after breaking Edith's heart.
After Mr. Cushing befalls a grisly death by bathroom sink, Thomas comforts Edith with marriage and life with Lucille at Allerdale Hall, his mansion in the middle of nowhere. Every ghost story requires a haunted house and Allerdale Hall is a doozy, the essence of Victorian decadence in disrepair, groaning and breathing as it sinks into the blood-red clay oozing through rotted floorboards.
That clay is being mined by Thomas for its mineral benefits, if he can get his steampunk shovel to work. For now the ground is del Toro's metaphor for blood to be spilled, in a place where fallen snow turns red and water is tinted. "Crimson Peak" it's nicknamed; where the ghost of Edith's father warned her about.
The sights and sounds are so vivid, and del Toro's manipulation so playfully elegant, that the screenplay's shortage of mystery disappoints. It is obvious from the first furtive glances exchanged by Thomas and Lucille that they're closer than siblings, with nefarious plans afoot. Del Toro insists we don't know, prolonging two teases and therefore his movie longer than necessary.
Style is everything and too obvious in Crimson Peak, from Edith's puffy fashion statements to Chastain dyeing her signature red hair coffin black, matching Lucille's personality. Del Toro takes things further sexually and violently than Hammer could in its day, without accomplishing much more than indulging a few deprived childhood fantasies.
Eventually del Toro surrenders to contemporary horror tastes, tossing aside nostalgic restraint in favor of a hefty meat cleaver, with spurts and gurgles galore. Crimson Peak ends with a torrent of high-toned violence, as if the Bronte sisters had a threesome with Eli Roth. The horror, as Lucille hisses, is for love.
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