Del Toro Strikes Back With Exquisite "Crimson Peak"

A costume drama is an innately delicate thing, a union that leans hard on all branches of filmmaking. The right cocktail of discipline and attention can yield period piece magic, but it’s the most volatile kind of cinematic alchemy. Toss in an outside element, like horror, and all bets are off, making for an errand best left to the bravest (or maddest) of filmmakers – like Guillermo del Toro.

The “Pacific Rim” filmmaker arguably peaked in 2001 with Spanish language horror pic “The Devil’s Backbone,” but not for a lack of gusto. Del Toro remains as excitable as ever, never signing up for a project that didn’t become one of passion, never less than thrilled about whatever movie he happens to be working on. It’s that fervor – along with the restraint inherent in costume dramas – that makes him a picture-perfect fit for the ornate medley of blood and lust that is “Crimson Peak.”

Set in 1901, the film is a cozily macabre love story that splits its time between the United States and England. In linking the ends of two booming eras (American industrialism and Victorian England), the screenplay – written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins – both underlines the brokenness of its lead characters and allows for its stunning visual aesthetic.

There is a cast of human characters here and they’re very good (more on them shortly), but “Crimson Peak” is first and foremost a cinematic picture book, dispensing the kind of confectionary art design that few films attempt and even fewer get right.

Common sense tells us that the movie was shot with cameras and enhanced with special effects, but there are shots here so beautiful that they must have been hand-painted. These are special visuals that will age gracefully – but they’re not the only reason to check in.

Mia Wasikowska (“Alice In Wonderland”) plays Edith Cushing, American girl, heiress to her industrialist father’s fortune, and aspiring horror writer. Her creepy stories soon begin to come to life when she meets and falls in love with a tall, dark Englishman named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who – along with his older sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) – is in America to find financial backing for a new invention.

After Edith’s father dies under mysterious circumstances, she weds Thomas and joins him in absconding to his family’s cold, dark English estate – the sublimely gothic Allerdale Hall.

The explanation behind the mansion’s Crimson Peak nickname is silly and wonderful, lending the movie much of its visual kick (a look that should give Tim Burton shooting pangs of envy).

It’s at Allerdale that the film becomes almost excruciatingly patient in building a triangle of jealousy between Edith, Thomas, and Lucille, a dynamic that’s affectionately soapy with notes of secrecy and violence. It all plays out rather predictably, but it’s the best kind of predictable, the kind that lets audiences play along and become naturally invested in the characters, no matter how loathsome some of them are.

Scene in and scene out, Wasikowska, a fundamentally understated performer, wisely defers to her flashier co-stars. Hiddleston made his bones as the delightfully villainous Loki in the “Thor” films, so he’s a natural fit here. Charlie Hunnam follows his “Pacific Rim” director in rebounding from that unfortunate misfire, putting in a nice supporting turn that rebuts his wooden one there. And the movie features one of the great dog performances of the decade.

But it’s Chastain who threatens to steal the film away from its visual palette, exhibiting a range that she’s only suggested before. Lucille runs cold and hot and then even colder still, ultimately erupting into a shrill, maniacal harpy that’s scarier than any ghost, any corpse del Toro could show us. It would be a star-making performance if she weren’t already a star, and she’s just magnificent as a living, breathing gargoyle drawn with glee by del Toro and Robbins.

In someone else’s hands, “Crimson Peak” might have come off as a costume drama shot out of a cannon, but del Toro’s is, crucially, a costume drama shot by a cannon – bloodied, distended, and grotesquely compelling. As portmanteau of period piece and splatter pic, it’s good. As nouveau silent horror film, it’s even better.

It’s not quite Lon Chaney’s “The Phantom Of The Opera” for a new generation and thematically it’s more of a snack than a meal. But it is a return to form for its creator, and that’s reason enough to celebrate.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 16, 2015
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriter: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam
MPAA Rating: R (for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language)