It’s hard to say who comes off as the most charismatic in Guillermo del Toro’s new Gothic Horror (and it is very Gothic) Crimson Peak.
The ‘Sherlock’ star was originally to play the lead before dropping out, and yet Hiddleston delivers an appropriately tortured and brooding Byronic figure in the form of Sir Thomas Sharpe.
The darling of definitive counterculture directors, she appeared as unruly vampire Ava in Jim Jarmusch’s quiet classic Only Lovers Left Alive – again, with Tom Hiddleston, cementing their place in contemporary Gothic cinema.
A striking figure in scarlet dresses and crazed scowling, she relishes her role as the far more mysterious Sharpe sibling, Lady Lucille – smouldering pouts one minute, and shrill homicide the next.
Let’s be realistic. The real star of the film has to be the beautiful and incomparable Allerdale Hall – monument to del Toro’s mindbending grasp of the scary and surreal, and the Gothic mansion to which all other Gothic mansions, in all other fiction, must aspire!
Being a film by del Toro, spectacle is all. Reportedly, the iconoclastic director spent seven months alone erecting the dark, decaying mansion set and outfitting it to his exacting standards. The script, however, probably enjoyed less and comes across as more of a knowing nod towards all the classic Gothic tropes.
Edith Cushing – acknowledging the heavy work Hammer Horror has done – is basically an upgraded Catherine Morland. In a twist on Austen’s creation, Edith does not believe in ghosts, and her own novel is simply ‘a story with a ghost in it, a metaphor’ – yet she soon finds herself unarguably trapped within a genuine haunted house.
The horrible truth lurking within the rotten heart of English aristocracy is another trait shared by so many definitive Gothic creations, as is the wasting illness that has Edith coughing up blood, echoing so many fragile heroines beset by tuberculosis.
The true heart of this movie is set entirely within the – seemingly bleeding – walls of Allerdale Hall, and that acknowledges slightly more recent thriller conventions like The Shining.
The ghosts in del Toro’s script are little more than the metaphors of Edith Cushing’s novel, and differ crucially from the diffuse and truly frightening shapes of more contemporary horror movies. In letting us see the spectres rendered gorily visible, they actually lose much of their emotional impact when contrasted with the half-glimpsed shadows of Paranormal Activity for example.
It’s all intentional of course, as del Toro says:
“I think people are getting used to horror subjects done as found footage or B-value budgets. I wanted this to feel like a throwback.”
Crimson Peak is a Gothic love story tinged with elements of supernatural horror. It shouldn’t be considered in the same category as all-American scare-fests, but more a natural product of Guillermo del Toro’s beautiful, bizarre and deeply unsettling imagination, even if it fails to live up to the mind-bending splendour of Pan’s Labyrinth or the spine-tingling chill of The Orphanage.
Nevertheless, it is an enjoyable and eerie film that makes a welcome break for viewers inundated with the vindictive spirits of Sinister and their ilk. Thrill along with this natural evolution of a genre pioneered by Shelley and Walpole.