If it turned out that Crimson Peak were a bad movie, I'd probably have recommended it anyway on the strength of its costumes and lavish set pieces. I expected the director of 2006's Pan's Labyrinth to come through with the arresting, haunting images. But often with stylized, visual directors, the story and characters become an afterthought, so it was an unexpected thrill when I realized around the halfway mark how deeply entrenched I was in the film's melodrama and confounding mysteries.
Guillermo del Toro's gothic romance takes place around the turn of the century in upstate New York, where Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) lives a comfortable, self-made life with her bearded, straight-talking father, Carter (Jim Beaver). The mother is long dead, but occasionally she shows up as a dripping aberration to deliver unto her daughter a cryptic, repeated warning to "Beware of Crimson Peak"whatever the hell that means. Edith doesn't know either and the ghosts don't elaborate.
Edith has written a novel featuring ghosts and other universal concerns, but the publishing world is pat and condescending. They tell her that female authors should stick to the domestic sphere of romance, family and children. When her father gifts her a fancy pen, she tells him thank you, but the next manuscript will have to be typed, lest her feminine handwriting give her away. Later, when Edith loses herself to romance and her writing's all but abandoned, we will remember what's been sacrificed.
Trouble comes to town with the arrival of siblings Thomas and Lucille Sharpe, played by Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain. In a scene reminiscent of ABC's "Shark Tank," Thomas demonstrates for Carter and his rich friends the prototype for a strange invention that mines clay out of the earth. Carter has instant dislike of these strangers, but in the end, fathers are helpless to save their children from the insidious disease of love and Edith and Thomas are married.
With the help of Edith's family fortune, brother, sister and wife return to England to live at the Sharpe family's spooky, decrepit mansion, complete with bleeding floors and corridors moaning low. If Lucille is an unwelcome third party to the newlyweds, she doesn't know it. She's shrewd and distrustful and won't give Edith keys to certain forbidden places in the house. Snow falls and collects in the foyer through a large hole in the rotted roof, and there's nothing to be done about the cold. "This is your home now," Lucille tells her. "You've got nowhere else to go."
At two hours, Crimson Peak's meticulous character study requires a patient audience. This is epic filmmaking in the tradition of Rebecca (1940), The Haunting (1963) or even The Shining (1980), all of which employ the classic set up: Put some people in a too-big house and watch them slowly come undone. Still, these influences do nothing to prepare you for the tremendous violence and sinister events to come. When Edith drops a butterfly on the ground, we see it eaten alive by other insects, and I knew that I was wrong to doubt. Tim Burton wishes he were so depraved.
Puffy sleeves and strangling necklines are cumbersome and oppressive, which makes it all the more satisfying when Edith and Thomas fight their way to each other's genitals through so many layers. Del Toro understands that sex and violence are what movies are for. He wants to literally show you his characters' insides. Ghosts haunt and people bleed, but nothing in this film cuts deeper than love itself. It makes sense, when you think about it. Has it not at times made worm's meat of me and you and everyone we know?
Crimson Peak continues at the Carmike 12.