★★★½ / 👍
I didn’t love this movie, but I never expected to. I prefer my ghost stories ambiguous and restrained; Guillermo del Toro is an artist driven by bold colors, broad strokes, and the satisfying clack of interlocking gears. Crimson Peak is a Gothic film through and through, and—in the words of Stephen King—a primary attraction of the Gothic is that the machinery is PRETTY GODDAMN LOUD.
Mia Wasikowska has what could only ever have been a thankless part, given the type of movie being made. It’s never quite clear what turns the intelligent, independent-minded, somewhat cynical woman we see at the beginning into—well, into a Gothic heroine, rather than the proactive, goal-driven protagonist we expect of a feature film released by a major studio in 2015. The audience would likely be contemptuous of her if she didn’t have those “strong female character” attributes at all, but those traits do make the artificiality of the situation even more apparent than it already is.
I first saw Jessica Chastain in two very different films on the same day—Tree of Life and The Help—and I’ve always mentally categorized her as an actor who adds surprising depth to stock archetypes. Her grounded performance in Mama (produced by del Toro) was wasted because it was at odds with that film’s jump-scare creature feature elements. Here, she’s given a character on the same wavelength as the movie, and makes the most of it. Watching Chastain sink her teeth into the role, and occasionally the scenery, is a genuine pleasure.
Hiddleston is wonderful as a latter-day Vincent Price here, splitting the difference between the dashing cruelty of Dragonwyck and the later tortured soul (with just a hint of camp) of Corman’s Poe adaptations. Charlie Hunnam’s floundering performance and unconvincing accent serve (intentionally or not) to mark his character as the sort of well-meaning but ineffectual man who is de rigueur in a Gothic.
I don’t love Guillermo del Toro’s films, but I do admire him as a “genre” filmmaker, in the specific sense of an artist who seeks to understand and replicate the core elements of a specific type of story, even at the expense of wider acceptance from the uninitiated. Rather than a middlebrow version of a kaiju film, akin to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s art-house take on the wuxia, Pacific Rim gave us a big-budget Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em monster rally that delighted fans of those films, and baffled almost everyone else. Crimson Peak continues this trend: it’s nearly devoid of sense, and embraces sensibility, to a degree that many will find unacceptable—or even laughable. I don’t know if del Toro’s cinematic necrophilia is any more or less distateful than, say, Quentin Tarantino’s; I only know that my particular kinks map more closely to Guillermo’s than Quentin’s.
The CGI ghosts are unconvincing and distracting, but they are, after all, only a metaphor.