Guillermo Del Toro’s big heart is his greatest distinction as a storyteller. His bitter disregard for the mainstream has made him a champion of individual expression and a defender of all sorts of underdogs, driving his attraction to the weirdness, macabre, gloop, and grue that are synonymous with his work and the genres he cherishes. Pan’s Labyrinth voices this stance most ferociously in its opposition to Franco’s regime, but Hellboy II, featuring the second disowned tragic villain that Luke Goss would play for Del Toro, does it with an elaborately melancholy fervor that has you pining for the existence of a hollow earth, and mourning the one he shows wasting away. Del Toro’s passion forces to you to look beyond your fear of monsters and scary surroundings to appreciate how history has led them to their current state. The same philosophy is applied to Crimson Peak, Del Toro’s mouthwatering leap into Gothic horror, whose misunderstood villains are desperately in need of a sympathetic ear, which makes for a refreshing take on the haunted house story it presents.
Taking place early in the 1900’s, Crimson Peak stars Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing, a budding novelist and only child of a widowed American business magnate who rails against the strictures of high society, at one point bringing her friend’s catty mother to the point of fainting by saying she’d be happy to die an old maid. Enter Tom Hiddleston’s English nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), scions to a squandered family fortune who seek a capital investment from Carter Cushing’s company to jump start production of their clay mines. The embattled Sir Thomas begins a romance with Edith, and before long she’s whisked away to the beyond-deteriorated ruins of the Sharpe’s haunted estate, Allerdale Hall, but not before she’s met for the second time in her life by the ghost of her mother, who issues a warning as vague as only a movie ghost can provide.
Allerdale Hall is a marvel in itself, brought to sumptuous, decrepit life by proud papa Del Toro, who leaves no backstory unfilled and no hallway unfurnished. There’s never any doubting his commitment to production design and art direction, for whom we can thank the expertise of Thomas E. Sanders and Brandt Gordon, respectively. Writing Edith as a novelist also gives Del Toro leeway to openly name-check his various influences, which he gets out of the way early lest Crimson Peak appear too transparent an ode to films of the past. Where a lesser talent might hide behind the set dressing and see if atmosphere could carry the weight of the picture, Del Toro and fellow screenwriter Matthew Robbins provide an excellent little mystery with plenty of its own to say, inhabited by fully fleshed characters. The dialogue can be too on-the-nose, but with a cast like this there’s no worry of anyone sounding off-key. Each and every actor plays brilliantly to type. Wasikowska was born to play the Gothic heroine, and Chastain fits the mold of the imperious mistress as much as Hiddleston does the wounded aristocrat. Even Charlie Hunnam gets in on the trend with his gutsy gentleman doctor who worries over Edith’s well being.
The scope may be small but the movie feels huge, which affects just how scary it feels. Del Toro is adamant that this is a Gothic romance, as opposed to horror, so he isn’t out to frighten you in the traditional sense. Allerdale Hall’s sundry ghosts belong to Del Toro’s gallery of beloved outsiders, and he can’t help but love his misfits, gruesome ghouls and disenfranchised aristocrats alike. The Sharpes may have been privileged once before, but their kind’s influence is waning in the face of self-made entrepreneurs like Carter Cushing. Del Toro recognizes the shifting winds, so they get the benefit of his soft spot. No matter how right Carter may be about the shady Sharpes, Del Toro shows a palpable contempt for him, epitome of capitalism and ruthless self-interest that he is. Del Toro never shies away from giving one’s comeuppance to his villains, but you can feel the pain with which he does it.
Even with this return to small time horror, Del Toro is fighting against a layer of gloss that the story could do without. He more or less succeeds through a careful deployment of CGI and practical effects, and by keeping his attention focused exclusively on a small number of people. Make no mistake, he is on top form, and despite promotion for Crimson Peak essentially spoiling its biggest secrets, Del Toro still has plenty to unveil, up until the last shot. It’s not that often that a Gothic horror – or romance – comes along, and even rarer for one given such careful consideration. Despite its superficial problems, this is a passion project done right, teeming with ideas, playing to its strengths, and bringing warmth to an ice cold story. If this is Del Toro in love, then he should be given free reign on any project.