In a recent interview with the Muse, director Guillermo del Toro quoted a colleague's assessment of his new gothic melodrama, Crimson Peak: "He says you are channeling your 14-year-old inner bookish girl. Which I would agree with," del Toro added.
Indeed, Crimson Peak is a lavish feast for any viewer who has a "14-year-old inner bookish girl." Billed as a horror movie, it's actually more of a dread-addled, mildly scary coming-of-age tale, with echoes of Rebecca, The Portrait of a Lady, The Haunting and (not even that incongruously) Kubrick's The Shining.
The film embodies a female fantasy that has fueled the success of works as different as Jane Eyre and the Twilight saga. A young girl is plucked from her ordinary surroundings to become the bride of a compelling, illustrious man — a prince, if you will. One with a dark secret. Given how del Toro mingled the wonder and terror of fairy tales in his superb Pan's Labyrinth, we know the secret of this film's too-perfect love interest won't involve anything as relatively benign as sparkly immortal blood sucking.
In 1901, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a fresh-faced aspiring author and the adored only child of a self-made Buffalo entrepreneur (Jim Beaver). Any reader of Henry James knows this makes her vulnerable to romantic assaults from titled Europeans with more dilapidated real estate than cash. Sure enough, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) shows up, equally eager for Edith's father's capital and her hand in marriage. The audience sees he's shifty, but Edith only sees ethereal blue eyes and mystery, so of course she falls for him.
After an untimely accident (or is it?) befalls her father, Edith follows her prince to the Cumberland estate of the title, where snow drifts through holes in the cavernous roof and blood-red clay bubbles up through the soil. Needless to say, the place is haunted. But Edith has prior experience with ghosts, and she's no fool when it comes to surviving gothic tropes. Those include Sir Thomas' imperious sister (Jessica Chastain), whose every word or (frequent) glare carries a heavy burden of ominous foreshadowing.
Chastain clearly delights in chewing the Victorian scenery, but there's no way she could ever upstage it. The real stars of Crimson Peak are its lush, whimsical costumes, cinematography and production design. Our eyes feast on the pre-Raphaelite scarlet and teal that wash the haunted corridors; the death-foretelling moths that flutter everywhere; the plump velvet fruits that perch precariously on Edith's shoulders, like emblems of her imperiled future fertility.
Explosions of eye candy make it easy to hide a weak story line, as audiences know from last week's Pan and the later Pirates of the Caribbean movies. But del Toro uses this visual richness to deepen the emotional impact of his derivative plot, not to camouflage it. While his expressionist CG ghosts are too arty and arch to be scary, they fit the film's stylized world, which teeters on the verge of camp (à la "American Horror Story") yet refuses to succumb. The actors commit to their roles with gleeful abandon, the blood that flows (amply, by the end) still matters and the self-aware quips are rare enough not to feel like tired disclaimers.
Crimson Peak is the perfect film for that small subgroup of moviegoers that doesn't see shivers and manic giggling as incompatible. Hard-core horror fans will shake their heads at its excesses, but bookish 14-year-old girls who have graduated from Twilight to the baroque romanticism of "Hannibal" might just bite. They'll nod in recognition, too, when proto-goth girl Edith says she would rather emulate Mary Shelley than Jane Austen. Props to del Toro for "channeling" that strain of fitful adolescent fervor without flattering or pandering to it — and for not pretending he was doing anything else.