There’s no need for Guillermo del Toro to make The Haunted Mansion. It’s clear from the title shot of this film (a storybook being opened, bringing to mind the classic Disney animated features) that del Toro has taken his love of Disney’s darker side and sewn it together with bits from the Brontë sisters, Daphne du Maurier, and Mary Shelley (who even gets a badass name drop in contrast to the insufferable Jane Austen) to create a Gothic horror… erm, romance tale that would be worthy of any of those storytellers.
It’s important to note that all of those influential authors are female, and that’s obviously a crucial factor to del Toro in Crimson Peak. This is a viciously feminine film where the women hold all the power, whether it be through their money, influence, lingering presence, or their love. While there’s plenty of Tom Hiddleston to drool over as the dashing Thomas, it’s clear that Mia Wasikowska’s Edith and Jessica Chastain’s Lucille are the ones who are in control, not just in regards to other characters but the plot as well.
Without getting into too much detail, the story revolves around Edith’s journey to Allerdale Hall, the decrepit family home of siblings Lucille and Thomas Sharpe, and the spooky goings-on that she encounters there. If you’ve seen most of del Toro’s films then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what role the ghosts play in this drama. Thankfully, these spectral beings are ghoulishly designed and will fit nicely next to the other creatures in del Toro’s filmography.
I do take slight umbrage with the film’s ponderous mystery, though it all pays off in spades by the film’s end. There’s a shorter version of Crimson Peak that’s perfect thanks to some of its inquisitive pacing getting trimmed down, but when you have such an assured voice behind the camera, it’s easier to accept the languishing mood the film falls into some time in the second act. In the hands of anyone but del Toro, I can definitely see Crimson Peak turning into an interminable slog halfway through its running time.
As far as the cast is concerned, it’s primarily a three person show for most of the film’s running time. Wasikowska vacillates a bit at the start of the picture, playing things a bit too Masterpiece Theatre-y for the first act of the film, but once she gets to Allerdale Hall, her performance clicks into place. Tom Hiddleston is doing his best Mr. Darcy and considering I’m someone who despises Pride & Prejudice, I found Hiddleston to be mysterious, alluring, and romantically tragic but never quite the level of charming that I think the character needed. The star of the show is easily Jessica Chastain as Lucille. She’s a glorious embodiment of simmering darkness and twisted contempt, and in a better world she’d be up for an Oscar nomination.
And through it all we have del Toro guiding the tale with elegance and grandeur. What’s always set del Toro apart from other fanatic horror filmmakers is that he enhances his passion with fervent knowledge and finesse. He never rests on his laurels, always striving to widen his scope and imagination through whatever means he can, and in the case of Crimson Peak it’s in the film’s main setting. The sinking Allerdale Hall (which conjures up images of Poe’s doomed abode from The Fall of the House of Usher) is one of the best locations in any del Toro film, and I could stare at its storied design for days. As in most great haunted house stories, the house itself is as much a character as any of the humans (or ex-humans) running around inside of it.
I can see a lot of people really disliking Crimson Peak. It has the intricate and leisurely pacing of a novel, it’s not a jump-scare bonanza like most people expect from a horror movie, there’s an air of stuffiness to the characters thanks to some flowery dialogue, and it’s much more focused on mood and atmosphere than it is a propulsive narrative. However, it’s the exact kind of horror film that should be getting made more often. Its ambitions are far beyond that of a cheap boo!-vie, it’s rife with subtext and complicated adult themes, it’s utilizing a stable of genuine and capable actors, and it’s filmed like it cost $100 million dollars. Add to that the ever-dependable quality that del Toro brings to all of his films, and Crimson Peak deftly surpasses the majority of its mainstream competitors. It may not be the movie that you want, be it’s the movie that we all need.