'Crimson Peak' swoons over its gory Gothic romance

Guillermo del Toro's historic ghost story offers visual feast but limited scares

The paradox of Crimson Peak is that a film so obsessed with death should be so full of life. For his Gothic haunted house tale, horror maestro Guillermo del Toro let his imagination run wild, so even decaying mansions and wispy specters practically erupt with vigor. In Crimson Peak, del Toro sets the table for an incredible visual banquet, even though the courses don't always complement each other.

You may know from the trailer that Crimson Peak involves ghosts: "Ghosts are real. This much I know," says Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) in the film's first line. A prologue finds Edith as a girl being visited one night by her dead mother, a monstrous wraith who hisses, "Beware of Crimson Peak!" Those and subsequent ghost effects are so ornate and macabre that you may expect the film to become a gory, Evil Dead-style monster mash, but del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins's script invest surprisingly heavily in the Victorian-era romance.

In Buffalo of 1901, Edith shows more interest in writing supernatural fiction than high society or courtship traditions. She changes her mind upon meeting Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a cash-strapped English nobleman seeking investors to save his family's clay mine. The sensitive and dashing Sharpe quickly becomes a point in a love triangle with Edith and family friend Dr. McMichael (Pacific Rim's bland Charlie Hunnam), a strapping ophthalmologist interested in ghost photography.

An immediate obstacle comes from Edith's father (Jim Beaver), a self-made building magnate who distrusts aristocrats in general and Thomas in particular. Thomas's sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) proves an even more sinister presence: when the two women chat about butterflies, del Toro cuts to an extreme close-up of insects gnawing on one. Chastain's malevolent performance, alternating between deadpan and camp, never disappears amid the art direction or elaborate costumes.

In the wake of a suspicious family tragedy, Edith marries Thomas and they move to his ancestral home of Allerdale, a literally crumbling manor with a hole in the roof above the entrance hall that lets in leaves and snowflakes. The house also sits atop the mine that unearths clay so scarlet, the water in the pipes and mud seeping from the ground looks like blood. Edith tries to settle in, but she receives visitations from misshapen ghosts that look to be shaped from the red clay.

Crimson Peak's plot of a virginal young woman uncovering mysteries in a sinister house deliberately echoes such moody love stories as Rebecca and Jane Eyre (Wasikowska even starred in a Jane Eyre adaptation in 2011). The classic Gothic novels and films tend to build suspense through implication, cultivating shadows and suspense. Crimson Peak, while a breathtaking feat of cinematography and design, delivers so much overripe color and swooping camerawork that it feels a little busy.

Plus, the ghosts are so up front and the Sharpes' secrets so easy to guess, the story has surprisingly little intrigue or mystery. Wasikowska's Edith emerges as a confident, self-reliant heroine who doesn't need a man to rescue her, to the point that the finale doesn't give the supernatural aspects a satisfying payoff. (Del Toro struck a much better balance of mood, characterization, and the unnatural in his early haunted orphanage film The Devil's Backbone.)

With Crimson Peak, del Toro wants to have it both ways, offering a rumination on runaway passion that's difficult to take seriously amid the over-the-top visual scheme and outbursts of crazy violence. A feast for the eyes that shouldn't be missed, Crimson Peak makes the heart go hungry. (3 out of 5 stars)

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