Crimson Peak: Fanboy’s take lacks novelty

As a bold, eye-filling spectacle, Crimson Peak will gratify any fan of fantasy and horror.CRIMSON PEAK (MA)
Shanghai night field

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Screening: general release

Rating: ★★★

“ALL baronets are bad,” pronounces the heroine of Ruddigore, Gilbert and Sullivan’s parody of a rip-roaring Gothic melodrama. The principle holds good in Crimson Peak, which sees Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro trying his hand at the same genre.

Del Toro is an unrepentant fanboy, and all his films are in a mode of loving pastiche. Here he’s drawing on various literary works in the Gothic tradition, from The Fall of the House of Usher to Rebecca, as well as their cinematic adaptations. Set around 1900, Crimson Peak is meant to suggest an old novel found in a dusty attic, with illustrations in colours more vivid than life itself: glistening gold, morbid blue-green, and deep, bloody red.

Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), the independent-minded American heroine, has literary forebears of her own: she’s an aspiring writer like Jo in Little Women, and an heiress like Isobel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady. In both these capacities, she attracts the attention of the pale and interesting Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet who’s in the States seeking capital for a mining venture.

Once the pair are joined in wedlock, Thomas brings Edith back to his ancestral home in northern England – a mouldering pile resembling the villain’s lair in a Disney cartoon, with spiked archways, swarms of moths, and glaring family portraits. Glaring, too, is Thomas’ witchy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who clutches an ominous set of keys and warns Edith that parts of the house must never be visited.

As a bold, eye-filling spectacle, Crimson Peak will gratify any fan of fantasy and horror. In plot terms, though, there’s something lacking: Del Toro does not add much to the sources he borrows from, except in upping the level of violence, and generally substituting explicit statement for lingering mystery.

There is also the problem of tone – of knowing when to hold back and when to go right over the top. Tim Burton is a master at this sort of thing: his best films, such as Sleepy Hollow, manage to be eerie, droll and romantic all at once.

Crimson Peak, by contrast, is grisly without being frightening, and campy without being particularly funny. While the dialogue is often knowingly absurd, the performances are earnest to a fault: even the typically arch Hiddleston – hilarious as the villainous Loki in a string of Marvel superhero films – is obliged to play it relatively straight.