The wall separating what happens in the mind of Guillermo Del Toro and what appears on screen is often no thicker than his skull. Del Toro has always had a knack for creating vibrant and imaginative worlds, rich with detail and symbolism, and breaks down any barrier between the film he envisioned and the final product; it can be best described as directorial stream of consciousness. Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Pacific Rim; only a mad man could have produced these movies and only Del Toro could have created such uncompromising visions of what goes on in his head (and his little notebook). But even the sharpest minds have the dullest of thoughts. Its not that Crimson Peak is particularly boring or outright bad, but when you’ve become accustomed to the disturbed, anything less feels like wasted potential.
Crimson Peak is visually stunning in the truest sense of the word. Crimson is rich in color that drips off every frame. Buffalo, NY, the home of debutante bookworm Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), is a mosaic of mustard yellows and autumn oranges, a warm and inviting world that’s but a moment’s breath from turning to the desolation of winter. Bright reds and the darkest of blacks are used to subvert the welcoming pastels and always imply something ominous: the black crawling hands of the film’s opening ghost, the dark gowns donning Edith as she encounters death, and of course, the tuxedo clad and red lipped Thomas and Lucille Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain). Thomas is in town seeking investors for his newest mining machine that digs red clay from the earth of his beloved family estate in England. The pair are penniless and desperate, but cling to their old world titles and sensibilities. The siblings are a mysterious pair with something sinister lurking just beneath the surface. Once Edith falls madly in love with Thomas (under more than suspicious circumstances), we are swept to the Sharpe family estate, Allerdale Hall.
Allerdale Hall is where the film finally starts to pick up after an hour of exposition, and its well worth the wait. Allerdale is a triumph in production design and easily the most impressive part of Crimson. A once great mansion now in shambles, Allerdale has a caved in roof that offers no resistance to the falling snow that piles in the middle of the foyer. Thomas’ beloved red clay, a congealed, dark crimson mess, seeps through the walls and floorboards and gives the house a living, breathing (and bleeding) feel that creeps around every corner. The crumbling and rotting wood is inhabited by more than mere newlyweds. At night the house comes alive with the ghosts of Allerdale’s past; bloodied and mutilated spirits that lead Edith on a goose chase of disturbing discoveries. But these ghouls are nothing in comparison to the dangers of the living, breathing inhabitants of our isolated landscape. In the climax, Edith wanders the snow covered grounds of the estate, hunting a malevolent villain who whips around in the fog, as blood red clay seeps through the ground like the secrets of Allerdale Hall spilling out in the final act. Crimson Peak is a beauty to watch, popping with color and always seeking the most dazzling combination of light, color, and symbolism to push the horror to its unwinding conclusion.
Crimson Peak gives enough to keep you guessing, but only enough to keep your attention (even then I found myself looking around at times in the first hour to break the monotony). Even with compelling visuals and excellent acting (Chastain and Hiddleston in particular), a slow plodding first act and ghost hauntings that never make it quite far enough to achieve terror and dread drag Crimson Peak into the crowded field of the good-but-not-great horror genre. Edith faces a slow moving death that is always just beyond the horizon (don’t worry, things will get real dangerous in the next scene) and often breaks the rules of sensibility and straight common sense in service of the treading plot line. And much like the 1959 House on Haunted Hill, when the horror finally rears its ugly head and whips the door open to reveal the evil purpose behind it all, its nothing more than a skeleton (proverbially, of course). As a throwback to some of our old horror classics, with its melodramatic acting that fills the screen and camera wipes between scenes, these choices are obviously intentional. But for increasingly scare-starved audiences, Crimson simply doesn’t quench our thirst for blood, even if it does come by the bucket full. Such is the gift and curse of Del Toro, what you’re seeing is exactly as it played out in his head. Perhaps its best to just sit back and let it all play out as he intended, and hope he’s keeping the darkest part of his brain for last.