“Crimson Peak” Is a Beautiful Bloody Mess

Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)

Billed as a gothic romanceCrimson Peak spurts forth today, fresh from the pulsating blood vessels of director Guillermo del Toro’s fevered cerebral cortex. Is that gruesome enough an image for you? No, well then you will definitely want to watch this movie so you can see even bloodier images, beautifully rendered. Through previous films such as CronosThe Devil’s BackboneHellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has proven himself deft at combining pop sensibilities with meaningful storytelling, often creating vivid works of powerful entertainment that serve as parables of larger issues (such as the Spanish Civil War). You get your kicks and feel elevated by the story all at the same. True, he also made Pacific Rim – and that remains inexplicable to me – but nobody’s perfect.

Crimson Peak, however, is not at the level of del Toro’s best output. It’s exquisitely acted and solidly diverting, but ultimately not nearly as consequential as it seems to take itself, and pretty obviously derivative of previous work by other artists. In particular, del Toro and his co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins (Mimic) seem to have taken A.S. Byatt’s 1993 book Angels & Insects – or its 1995 cinematic adaptation – reversed the genders of the main characters, and added elements of the supernatural. And lots of blood. Other influences include The Shining and every Japanese horror film ever made, to name just . . . some.

Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) plays Edith Cushing, a young woman whose mother’s funeral – and later apparition as a ghost – opens the movie. As do her spoken lines, “Ghosts are real. This much I know.” She lives in turn-of-the-20th-century Buffalo, New York, where her father, Carter Cushing – played by the excellent Jim Beaver (Whitney Ellsworth in “Deadwood“) – is an extremely successful up-from-his-bootstraps tycoon. She’s an aspiring writer, dreaming of excitement, when one day a mysterious pair of English aristocrats – brother and sister – arrive. Though initially put off at the idea of unearned privilege, Edith is soon infatuated with Sir Thomas Sharpe – Tom Hiddleston (Thor: The Dark World), in full seduction mode – though little love is lost between her and his sister. Lady Sharpe is played by Jessica Chastain (The Martian) as a cross between Lady Macbeth and the witches who open that very same play, all bile and venom housed in an attractive exterior. Together, the three leads have a lot of fun jousting with themselves and the ridiculously over-the-top plot. You may have fun, too, unless you find the recycled ideas too much to take.

I far preferred the first half, where actions were shrouded in dim candlelight and half-revealed motivations. Once we travel to England, the machinations of brother and sister became a little too obvious – and I saw an ostensibly big reveal coming from far off – and the film begins to bore just as we settle in to watch the big set pieces. Why do the Sharpes need Edith? What is in the basement? Is that crimson clay beneath the ruined mansion really just red dirt? And what is it that goes bump in the night? Well, ghosts are real. This much we know. So who made the ghosts? These and more questions will be answered – perhaps by you prior to their on-screen explanation – by the end. I did enjoy one particularly inventive visual, however. Clearly something is rotten at the core of the Sharpes’ being, so when we arrive at their estate and there’s a big hole in the roof, though which moisture falls onto the decaying wooden interior, it’s a perfect metaphor for who they are. Then again, it’s hardly subtle. Nor is the film. But it is mostly enjoyable, if a bloody mess.

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