Ever since his rise to prominence, the career of Guillermo Del Toro has truly been one of peaks and valleys. Though he usually comes out the other side of films with his reputation intact with critics, his standing with audiences and consequently, financiers is often on much shakier ground. The Hellboy series was cut adrift, right now Pacific Rim is heading the same way, The Hobbit was taken away from him and now Crimson Peak is struggling to make back what Del Toro has said is a $50 million budget. Upon entering the screen for Crimson Peak, I was greeted with a sight to grimly cross off the cinephile bingo card: a cinema entirely empty except for me. And more's the pity, because Crimson Peak is another entertaining look into the magical madness that Del Toro so elegantly crafts.
In the early going of Crimson Peak, aspiring writer Edith Cushing has to point out that the ghosts in the story she's writing are intended as a metaphor for the past. It's not impossible to imagine this line coming in a redraft after a frustrating meeting with executives who insisted that they loved the script but had "questions", and Del Toro may well have wanted to include the line a couple of more times now that marketing has misleadingly if understandably emphasised the film as an out and out haunted house horror movie, rather than the less popular gothic tragic romance that it actually is. The ghosts of the film of course are metaphors for the past, not that that makes Del Toro's designs any less unnerving.
The ghosts look fantastic, skeletal whisps doused in black or (what else) crimson, jerkily stalking Edith around her new home in Allerdale Hall, the dilapidated English mansion she shares with new husband Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his cold sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain). In Allerdale Hall, Del Toro has given himself a great playset, a lovingly designed old glory, once decadent now literally moth-eaten; a ruin with a hole in the roof which causes snow to form in the hall for a perfectly dramatic spotlight, a house that appears to be bleeding due to the red clay that is sinking too. To turn a phrase from The Wicked + The Divine, they are none-more-gothing that hole into the ground. Del Toro knows how to bring his toy to life too, with great use of colour and light that makes the mansion terse during the gloomy English days and tense during the candle-lit nights. Crimson Peak is constantly a joy to look at, which helps make up for the occasional problems with the actual story.
So the penniless noble Sir Thomas whisks independent Edith away from America to England as his bride, very shortly after the shocking death of her father, who very shortly before that, he had asked for money for a machine to kickstart the mining operation at Crimson Peak and restore his family name. Thomas and his sister are up to something, something spooky is going on at Allerdale Hall and back in America, a professional doctor and amateur sleuth (played by Charlie Hunnam not Garrett Hedlund, I rechecked repeatedly) who's long held a candle for Edith has some misgivings about the whole situation. Viewers will have a rough idea where all this is going, fans of gothic stories will likely have it all sussed quite quickly, but the simple story builds to a suitably lurid pay-off and is helped by strong performances by the female leads. Wasikowska is an underrated performer and plays Edith as curious and capable while just enthralled enough by her husband. For Chastain's depiction of the domineering Lady Lucille, picture Eva Green if she actually knew when to tone down and when to double down. Her barely contained mania elevates the film, with a tense scene where she feeds Edith porridge a particular highlight. Hiddleston on the other hand is a little disappointing. It feels like it might slightly be more an issue of an under-written part but Hiddleston is well-capable of being sinister but doesn't provide much here besides his big puppy-dog eyes.
You might look at a watch for 119 minutes and know that at the end of it, it's going to be 119 minutes later. But there are good watches and there are bad watches and Crimson Peak is golden and ornate and it's still oddly mesmerising to watch clockwork in action even when you know what it's doing. It's a good watch is what I'm saying. Seek it out before it fades away from your local cinema, sadly, you might not have much time.