>>> Crimson Peak

CRIMSON PEAK (Guillermo del Toro). 119 minutes. Opens Friday (October 16). See listings. Rating: NNNN

The marketing of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak as a horror movie does it a great disservice. Scary things do shuffle about, manifesting with howling and shaking, but the intentions are more literary. Imagine Jane Eyre, if the first Mrs. Rochester was literally haunting Gateshead.

Is that a spoiler? Not really. Del Toro tells us what sort of story he’s telling straight away. Crimson Peak is a proper Gothic romance, following innocent Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) as she’s swept away from her wealthy Buffalo enclave by the darkly romantic Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who brings her to live with him and his protective sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in their crumbling English manse on a remote mountaintop in Cumberland. 

The mountain is made up of a curious clay that gives the earth the rich, red colour of blood, which really ought to be Edith’s first clue that things are not going to go well for her. But this is a story rooted in slow-burning mysteries and gradual understanding, and though Edith isn’t stupid, she’s in love and willing to believe the best of her husband, even when he’s insisting she drink a particularly bitter tea at regular intervals.

Crimson Peak is to the Golden Age Hollywood adaptations of Jane Eyre, Rebecca and Great Expectations what Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven was to the oeuvre of Douglas Sirk – a modernization of a specific sort of period piece that aims to rescue it from ironic viewing. 

Just as Haynes added profanity and confrontational sexuality to Sirk’s purple world of unspoken emotions and sumptuous production design, del Toro takes the Gothic romance genre and renders it in Technicolor, showing us the gruesome fates that were previously kept in shadow. And his attention to detail puts Haynes’s own vision to shame, presenting gorgeous visuals and exquisite costumes with a vivid colour scheme borrowed from his beloved Italian giallos. 

Wasikowska makes a great Gothic heroine, her pallid complexion hiding reserves of moral strength, while Chastain manages to create an imposing, humourless figure while still showing us how much she’s enjoying herself. Hiddleston has more obvious fun with the layers of his character, and Jim Beaver is memorable as Edith’s doting father. Charlie Hunnam struggles to define his straight-arrow supporting role, but I’m not sure that’s entirely his fault his steadfast physician is the sort of character that barely existed in the original version of these stories, and Del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins strain to find something for him to do besides be all steadfast and doctory.

It might not work for people who don’t get the references – it almost certainly won’t, based on the response from my preview audience – but del Toro isn’t making Crimson Peak for them.

Like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro’s labours of love are notoriously hard to classify, and that brings us back to the whole horror thing. There are plenty of disquieting things to be found in these films, but the label doesn’t exactly apply. And like those movies, it’s best to embrace Crimson Peak for what it is – a love song to a certain kind of movie they don’t make any more, and maybe one that only exists in del Toro’s head.

Whatever it is, it’s a pleasure to spend two hours inside it.

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