Ever since they first bounced onto the international scene, the three Mexican visionaries Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu have peppered our screens with strokes of genius, routinely wowing audiences and critics alike with their distinctive visuals and boundary pushing greatness. All three were critically adored from the beginning, but quickly became regulars at every award ceremony available with a torrent of nominations with every release. As Cuarón and Iñárritu continued to fine tune their visions into consistently brilliant pieces and shared the Best Director Oscar for three straight years between them, del Toro instead opted to delve deeper and deeper into his own corner of the film universe – an ambitious H.P. Lovecraft inspired wonderland of freaks and outcasts that never completely cemented his distinctly brilliant vision onscreen the way his compatriots were able to with the likes of Children Of Men, Gravity, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) or The Revenant.
That’s not to say it hasn’t ever happened though. His early films Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone came close, culminating in the dark fantasy of 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a perfectly realized gothic thriller set in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. This was peak del Toro, a dark and brutal masterpiece dripping with imagination and beauty in every frame. It contained all the classic del Toro tropes – terrifyingly original monsters, dashes of graphic violence and gore, a fairy tale undertone and heartbreakingly emotional. It was seemingly everything that his forays into Hollywood weren’t, and fuelled many fans’ argument that his best work only came on his Spanish language films. Where his Spanish films felt deeply personal, his mainstream work leaned too heavily towards standard superhero fare, good films that never the less paled in comparison to his other pieces. Hellboy II: The Golden Army came close, improving on the original by clearly infusing it with more of del Toro’s personality, but his follow up Pacific Rim lacked the emotional depth that naturally poured out of his best work.
Crimson Peak came next, and immediately looked like a deep breath after the excessiveness of Pacific Rim in all its city destroying glory. This was a project well suited to the director’s perfect horror sensibilities, a love story wrapped in a haunted house outline. It stars Mia Wasikowska as Edith Cushing, a young American author haunted by visions of her dead mother who is quickly swept up into a romance with Tom Hiddleston’s Sir Thomas Sharpe, an English baronet in the US with his sister Lucille hoping to find investors for his clay-mining invention. Edith’s father rejects Thomas’ business proposal, but can only look on as Edith and Thomas grow closer and closer, eventually marrying and moving to the Sharpe’s home in England.
It’s here where the film takes shape, balanced around Edith, Thomas and Lucille in their artfully dilapidated mansion. Del Toro works every creak and shadow of Allerdale Hall to haunting effect, using the building as a character of its own – all staggering staircases and gloomy atmospherics centred around a gaping hole in the ceiling that delicately sprinkles snow in a beam of light down to the floor. It’s a setting that he’s always excelled at, gothic undercurrents with plenty of darkness in every corner available for whatever horrors await. With her new husband and sister-in-law growing more suspicious with every day, Edith is again visited by ghastly spirits clawing their way out of the shadows to traumatize Edith at every turn. As the mansion’s secrets reveal themselves in the latter stages the apparitions fade to the background slightly, allowing the horrible revelations to provide the movie with its darkest moments.
The love story is handled remarkably well. The two leads have a solid chemistry together, and Hiddleston in particular does well to keep his character’s mysterious intentions from overshadowing his charm. He plays it like a genuine romantic lead, likeable and charismatic, only with clear secrets buried underneath. It’s a nice build-up to a second half that aims to terrify in the best del Toro fashion. The two leads are wonderful throughout and sell the twist brilliantly, while Jessica Chastain is utterly terrifying as Lucille. Where the film’s ghosts are frustratingly unrealistic, Chastain stares holes through the screen like some of the director’s best monsters. She is one of the world’s most versatile actresses, just as convincing as the elegantly unhinged Lady Lucille as she is in her Oscar nominated turn as the ditzy Celia Foote in The Help.
Unfortunately the rest of the movie is just never as scary as it aims to be. There are moments of greatness interspersed with missed opportunities. The biggest problem is one del Toro normally excels at – the ghosts that haunt Edith are visually disappointing, blurs of CGI that lack the terrifying reality of some of the director’s greatest creature creations and immediately destroy any tension built leading up to their reveal. Charlie Hunnam’s role as Edith’s childhood friend is also bizarrely unnecessary, a voice of reason in the beginning only to inexplicably return to no benefit later in the movie.
In avoiding the practical special effects he has become known for, he almost wastes the breathtaking possibilities of the mansion itself. As soon as it appears Allerdale Hall is immediately a setting that serves as the quintessential del Toro playground, a chance for him to flourish in ways he hasn’t for almost a decade. For the most part he succeeds – this is a beautifully crafted film, and maintains a suitably creepy vibe throughout – it just doesn’t come close to the bar he set with Pan’s Labyrinth. The expectations on del Toro are higher than usual, and deservedly so. He is one of the few genuine visionaries in film, and with Cuarón and Iñárritu continuing to define their cinematic legacies with every new achievement, it’s on del Toro now to create another classic, something that might tilt his resume closer to greatness. As his best work in a decade though, Crimson Peak is certainly a step in the right direction.