CRIMSON PEAK

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorham, Doug Jones, Leslie Hope, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray.

The latest film from Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, etc), Crimson Peak is a macabre Victorian style Gothic romance with ghosts, murder, madness and a dose of incest thrown in for good measure.

His fantasies (like Pacific Rim and Hellboy) have always been more lurid, whereas Crimson Peak is more atmospheric and old fashioned in its approach. Del Tor and his regular cowriter Matthew Robbins (Mimic, etc) try to suffuse the pulpy material with the atmosphere of those classic Hammer horror films of yesteryear as well as the Italian Giallo style of horror with a touch of Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley. The pair also include many of the tropes of other classic haunted house stories, from Rebecca through to The Fall Of The House Of Usher, combined with the breathless Victorian romance of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, et al. But it doesn’t quite hold together and ultimately collapses under the weight of Del Toro’s ambition.

Crimson Peak is set at the end of the nineteenth century. Scottish baron Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, best known for playing the villainous Loki in the Thor movies) is an engineer and inventor and industrialist who has come to New York to seek financial investment so he can finish building his infernal machine that will revolutionise the mining industry. He approaches a consortium of businessmen headed by Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), a respected builder in Buffalo. Sharpe is accompanied by his sister, the mysterious and enigmatic Lucille (an almost unrecogniseable Jessica Chastain, with black hair and a pinched face), who seems cold and distant. There is a strong, intimate bond between Thomas and Lucille that is slightly unnerving.

But the dashing and charming Thomas catches the eye of Cushing’s spirited daughter Edith (played by Mia Wasikowska), a budding author. But Edith is also cursed with the ability to communicate with the souls of the dead. Carter suspects that not all is right with the Sharpes and hires a private investigator to probe deeper.

After the brutal murder of her father, Edith is consumed by grief and almost on a whim marries Sir Thomas, much to the consternation of her childhood friend and admirer Dr McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, from tv series Sons Of Anarchy, etc). She returns home to Scotland to live in the Sharpe’s ancestral home at Allerdale Hall with Thomas and his slightly unhinged sister Lucille. And that is when things begin to turn creepy.

Allerdale Hall itself is an impressive and spooky dilapidated and crumbling structure with lots of cavernous rooms, locked doors, long and winding passageways and the obligatory basement that contains plenty of hidden secrets and family skeletons. The house itself is built on blood red clay that is slowly oozing through the cracks in the floor and turning the snow on the ground red, and there is a sense of foreboding that permeates the walls and labyrinthine corridors. Any sane person would have taken one look at this monstrosity and got on the first boat back to New York. But Edith is a strong minded woman who stays and tries to solve the mysteries that lie beneath Allerdale’s halls. Edith begins to see ghostly apparitions of previous occupants of the house, and is almost driven to the brink of madness herself.

Cast against type here, Chastain makes Lucille a nasty, malevolent piece of work, and her cold performance perfectly suits the character. Wasikowska brings a fragile and vulnerable quality to her virginal Edith, but she is comprehensively outshone in the dramatic stakes by her co-star. The Cushing surname is probably a deliberate reference to the late Peter Cushing, who was a staple of those classic old Hammer horror films. Hiddleston brings plenty of charm to his performance as Sir Thomas but he underplays the conflicted and tortured protagonist.

Del Toro has a singular vision in his approach to horror and the supernatural, and he develops a slow burn air of unease that ultimately gives way to some well orchestrated bloodshed in an overly violent climax. Del Toro has always been about style and a strong visual sense, and here he uses lots of red as a common motif and a recurring theme throughout to symbolise blood.

This is a handsomely mounted production, with some wonderful set design and Thomas E sander’s production design creates the imposing edifice of Allerdale Hall and makes it the best haunted mansion this side of the Overlook Hotel. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen uses natural lighting and a garish colour palette for the interior shots to heighten the unsettling effect of this haunted house of horrors.

★★★

 

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