Is a horror movie a failure if it doesn't manage to scare you? Perhaps. And especially if an aim to fright is the only thing it's got going for it. But Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak is so insanely lush, beautiful, and classically gothic that it almost seems like nitpicking to point out that it's not particularly scary,
Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing, (a nice nominal nod to Hammer star Peter Cushing), the only child of her widowed father (Jim Beaver), a wealthy industrialist in early 1900's Buffalo, New York. She's an aspiring writer, and therefore a bit of a social outcast. When a member of local high society chides her for being the next Jane Austen, saying "She died an old maid, didn't she?," Edith replies, "I'd rather be Mary Shelly; she died a widow."
She's the plucky kind of anachronistic heroine modern audience can get behind. She's not just writing a story, she's writing a ghost story, a subject she knows something about, having been visited by the ghost of her dead mother when she was a young girl. Edith would rather stay home with a pile of reference books than accept an offer of a date from handsome friend and doctor Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnan).
That is, until a Sir Thomas Middleton, (Tom Hiddleston), enters the picture. He's an English baronet who has come to America seeking investors for a mining machine of his own invention, one that will dig up the mineral-rich red clay (used to make bricks) that sits below his property. Edith's father is not impressed with him, or his creepy sister, (Jessica Chastain, in her 86,000th screen appearance this year).
The film's beginning is filled with gorgeous costumes: Lots of corseted waists and bell sleeves for the ladies, and white ties and top hats for the gentlemen, along with homes full of dark wood interiors, walls of books, and ten-piece table settings. It's easy to sink into the comfortable opulence and eye candy; It's like The Age of Innocence with ghosts. Which makes the change of scenery to crumbling Allerdale Hall all the more shocking; the only thing the two homes have in common is the haunting.
Allerdale Hall is so over-the-top creepy, it's like Disneyland's "Haunted Mansion" on acid. There's a giant hole in the roof, allowing leaves (from unseen trees) to constantly rain into the entrance hall, along with snow and bugs. The mansion sits atop (and is slowly sinking into) a mountain of Sir Thomas's precious red clay, and red ore seeps through the floors. And the walls. And the water. Basically, what isn't covered in dead flies or fluttering moths is or will eventually be covered in red ooze.
It's little surprise that a brother and sister who would choose to live together in a rotting mansion with oozing walls have something else up their fancy sleeves, and following classic gothic romantic tradition, there are secrets to be found in locked up rooms, and a mysterious past that will be revealed. Wasikowska, with her porcelain skin and yellow blonde hair is the perfect waify counterpoint to the uber-goth siblings. Within the darkened halls of Allerdale, she almost looks like a ghost herself.
Which brings us back to those ghosts. Oh, the ghosts. They do a lot of screaming, and slamming around, and are, I suppose, spooky looking. But they never do anything truly unexpected; they aren't apparitions that will haunt your dreams. Maybe this is why del Toro amps up the gore factor. It's always easier to gross an audience out than it is to scare one, and there are plenty of stabbings, slicings, and head crushings to add a good dose of splatter to the movie's horror.
Crimson Peak wants to be a lot of things, and it doesn't succeed at all of them. But when it does succeed it is so bewitching that its faults can be excused. It belongs alongside the classics of the Hammer Studio and Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe films, visual masterpieces that take advantage of all the indulgences the horror genre has to offer.