American wannabe-novelist Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is swept off her feet by dashing British baronet Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston). But his decrepit estate comes with his brittle sister Lucille (Chastain). And ghosts. And other dark threats...
Up until now, you could easily scratch a thick, red line through the middle of Guillermo del Toro's work. On one side you'd have his 'grown-up' movies, on the other his North American pictures. Crimson Peak is, finally, his first film to cross that line. It is wrought from the same baroque, shadowy materials as The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, yet nobody's speaking Spanish. It's as if someone's finally decided that us English-babblers can handle del Toro without a kid-friendly certificate and giant, building-mashing monsters.
The result is, for the most part, a gory, glorious and visually sumptuous success. Crimson Peak is closest to The Devil's Backbone, another period ghost-story with an innocent protagonist, inventively rendered spectre (or, in this case, spectres) and a mystery at its heart rather than an urge to terrify. But where that concerned a Spanish Civil War-era orphanage, this mostly plays out in a vast, rotting gothic mansion on a blasted Northern-English moor in the late 19th century. And del Toro revels in his extreme setting, making Crimson Peak a fever-pitched, candelabra-lit romance whose supernatural elements are shamelessly lurid. The house itself, for example, bleeds. With the Sharpes' creepy domicile subsiding atop a red clay mine, the stuff oozes through the floorboards – thick, gloopy and bright orange-scarlet. It very much resembles Hammer-horror blood, sticky stage-claret from the days when it was felt that the real thing just didn't look impressive enough on screen. And del Toro's ghosts are made from the same stuff: bright red, distorted-skull-faced women, twitching and wailing at us from the afterlife.
Beyond his impressive array of hauntresses, there's no attempt to redefine a genre here, or even subject it to fiendish new twists. This is a Victorian Gothic pastiche by a filmmaker who knows his stuff, and as long as you don't expect to be surprised by its plot developments or subjected to a full-on horror, there is much to enjoy. In portraying the kind of characters you'd expect to populate such a dark-cornered tale, Mia Wasikowska and Tom Hiddleston play entertainingly to their strengths (she's the wan ingénue with a steely core; he's the dastard with a flicker of conscience), while Jessica Chastain shows off a side we've not seen before: icy, venomous and dangerously fragile.
The placement of his latest film right on top of that scratched, red line is appropriate in more ways than one. Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone are significantly superior works to the likes of Hellboy and Pacific Rim. And while Crimson Peak isn't quite as strong as those previous grown-up offerings, it is arguably his finest North American picture yet.
It may be a little overwrought for some tastes, borderline camp at points, but if you're partial to a bit of Victorian romance with Hammer horror gloop and big, frilly night-gowns, GDT delivers an uncommon treat.