Even the pristine white snow bleeds bright scarlet in “Crimson Peak,” the malformed love child between a richly atmospheric gothic romance and an overripe Italian giallo — delivered into this world by the mad doctor himself, horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, operating at his most stylistically unhinged. Aflame with color and awash in symbolism, this undeniably ravishing yet ultimately disappointing haunted-house meller is all surface and no substance, sinking under the weight of its own self-importance into the sanguine muck below. Named after the estate to which Mia Wasikowska’s newly orphaned and even newlier-wed heroine unwisely relocates with a plainly duplicitous brother-sister pair, “Crimson Peak” proves too frou-frou for genre fans, too gory for the Harlequin crowd and all-around too obvious for anyone pressed to guess what the siblings’ dark secret could possibly be, and will likely wind up an in-the-red setback to Universal’s most profitable year.
It’s a testament to del Toro’s stature in Hollywood that the studio greenlit this costly R-rated indulgence, far closer in tone to such Spanish-language chillers as “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Cronos” than any of the comicbook and action spectaculars that have since made him a household name in the States. After butting heads with Warners over “Pacific Rim’s” PG-13 rating (which may explain the delays to that pic’s sequel), he dramatically switches gears on a twisted costume opera designed to let his bloodier tendencies loose. Bursting with references both literary and cinematic, this is del Toro’s “The Age of Innocence” by way of Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents,” as brazenly over-the-top as those films were subtle, manifesting a ghost story in which Wasikowska’s Edith Cushing has far more to fear from the living than from the dead, and the female of the species is deadlier than the male.
An anomaly among the husband-hunting bachelorettes of turn-of-the-century Buffalo, N.Y., Edith would rather write fiction — specifically, tales of the supernatural — than attend fancy high-society balls. Though a skeptic toward romance, she believes in ghosts, having received a mortifying visit from her late mother (played by “Pan’s Labyrinth” creep Doug Jones) while still a young girl. At the time, she doesn’t put much stock in the wraith’s warning — “Beware of Crimson Peak,” hisses the incongruously computer-generated apparition — and she remains far more open-minded toward the undead than any of her altar-bound peers would be. That’ll come in handy more than an hour later, when she finally gets to Crimson Peak, a crumbling British mansion perched atop a heap of blood-red clay.
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But first, she has to fall in love, which poses a unique challenge for del Toro. As with the heroine that he and co-writer Matthew Robbins have created, his literary role model is more Mary Shelley than Jane Austen. The helmer seems far more comfortable noodling around in the audience’s collective subconscious, where fears lurk and desire festers, than dealing with something as straightforward as pure romantic attraction, and though he’s attempted to create a triangle between Edith and two differently alluring men, hardy local doc Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) and obsequious British baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), it seems pretty clear that she’d be better off sticking to her principles and avoiding such entanglements altogether.
And yet, del Toro takes his time with Sharpe’s seduction, as if the director who can make people faint from fright were trying to prove to himself that he can get them to swoon as well. Just wait’ll you get to the sex scenes. Neither love nor lust comes easily to del Toro, despite a charming enough ballroom setpiece in which Edith and Sharpe test whether they can waltz in circles without extinguishing a lit candle, while the baronet’s raven-haired sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, alarmingly miscast), smolders in sync from behind the piano.
Something’s not quite right between these two siblings, and cinemas should comp the tickets of all who divine what the trouble is before Sharpe marries Edith against the objections of her aristocracy-phobic father (“Deadwood’s” Jim Beaver) and whisks his new bride off to the very place her dead mother so directly warned her not to visit. (Following his revoltingly brutal murder, ghost-dad should probably pay Edith a visit as well, if only to tell her who it was that smashed his skull in.) Sharpe may or may not love Edith, but he definitely likes her money, which he needs to finance a noisy contraption that digs that gross clay out from Crimson Peak.
While America, land of Thomas Edison, was lit all in gold and bronze tones, back home in Sharpe’s native Britain, things look infinitely more somber, the gloom pierced by almost fluorescent stabs of light — a look d.p. Dan Lausten clearly borrowed from the Dario Argento playbook (one the film itself dubs “gothic a la Italiana”). Ornate in the extreme, with entire rooms dedicated just to moths and a forbidden basement full of burbling blood-red clay vats, the Sharpes’ mausoleum-like home appears to be an LSD-spiked, Technicolor-nightmare version of Manderley, as featured in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.” Cued by Fernando Velazquez’s wonderfully eerie score, one can practically feel the specter of past wives hanging about the place — they’re plainly visible to Edith, as they lurk behind closed doors and waft up through floorboards like projections from Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride.
Love may have hobbled her intellect, but Edith remains a reasonably smart young woman: All it takes is a reminder visit from her dead mom and a nasty fit of coughing up blood to realize that something is amiss. And her intuition is better than del Toro’s, who never should have chosen Chastain: While the actress expanded her strong, wholesome image by crossing over to the dark side in last year’s “A Most Violent Year,” the role of Lucille requires a streak of vicious insecurity and black-widow ruthlessness that Chastain flounders to convey. “Crimson Peak” demands a witchier — or at least bitchier — actress to go all Mrs. Danvers on Edith. (Parker Posey comes to mind, though Hiddleston’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” co-star, Tilda Swinton, would have made a delicious alternative.) Deprived of her own crimson locks, Chastain can’t even manage the British accent, and the character’s psychotic break ultimately ruptures the pic’s last shred of credibility.
By contrast, with her pale, porcelain-doll face and long blonde tresses, the appropriately cast Wasikowska practically glows in the dark as she takes candelabra in hand and goes looking for the haunted house’s secrets. Still, less setup and a lot more exploring would have done wonders, as the mansion is by far the film’s main attraction — the brainchild of del Toro and production designer Tom Sanders, whose work on “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” was an ideal warm-up for the gig.
As it happens, del Toro (together with co-writer Robbins) already has a far more effective haunted-house picture under his belt, the Troy Nixey-directed “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (a movie that, while scripted for a PG-13, landed an R from the MPAA for sheer intensity). Though the director takes clear delight in being free to operate in adults-only mode here, the tonal mismatch between visual beauty and Grand Guignol gore — an oculus rift, if ever there was — yields revulsion rather than fright. He errs by opening the film with a flash-forward that assures us Edith will survive, and delivers the film’s only real scare in the very next scene, when her mom first visits. It hardly matters that “Crimson Peak” blossoms into del Toro’s most sumptuous film, as there’s no recovering from the fact the suspense crimson-peaks too early.