With Halloween fast approaching, it's the time of year when everyone's in the mood for a good scary movie. But what terrifies us on screen isn't a one-size-fits all sort of thing, and what's currently in vogue when it comes to horror -- theaters this time of year always see a barrage of slasher thrillers, found-footage, and post-modern horrors -- don't do it for everyone. So it's nice to see two new October releases getting in touch with their cinematic roots, taking inspiration from more old-fashioned haunted house and monster movie genres.
But those expecting a traditionally terrifying tour through Guillermo del Toro's impeccably art directed nightmares might be in for some disappointment with the director's latest, "Crimson Peak." Though a haunted house story through and through, the film is even more the director's stab (no pun intended) at a gothic romance, having more in common with "Rebecca" than something like "The Amityville Horror." A slow build, "Crimson Peak" gives us time to get on its decidedly old-fashioned wavelength -- arch performances, iris wipes, and all -- before building to an operatically blood-drenched finale. It's "Jane Eyre" with the sex and violence levels cranked into R-rated territory.
We begin in turn-of-the-century Buffalo, where Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer of macabre ghost stories (she claims Mary Shelley as a personal inspiration). Edith's creative aspirations are crystallized at a young age, when she's visited by the ghost of her mother who warns her to "beware of Crimson Peak." But as an adult, Edith's literary career is thwarted by the patriarchal society in which she lives, leaving the door open for her to be swept off her feet by a mysterious British aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), when he arrives in town with his oddly cold sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Against the protestations of her father (Jim Beaver) -- and later her childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) -- Edith eventually accepts Thomas's proposal of marriage, and she's whisked off to Allerdale Hall, the family estate her new husband shares with Lucille.
A triumph of production design, Allerdale Hall is a decaying ruin, rotting from the inside. Built on a foundation of red clay -- into which the house is slowly sinking -- scarlet drips seep from every wall and soak through the snow outside (hence the moniker, "Crimson Peak"). With every gust of wind, the house seems to breathe. In my favorite design touch, the entrance hall's roof has rotted through, allowing a stream of leaves to steadily flutter down to the floor (despite the fact that outside views of the manor clearly establish that there isn't a tree anywhere near the house -- but logic like that doesn't matter when you're as under the film's spell as I was).
Oh, and there's also a bevy of ghosts roaming the creaky hallways that Edith insists on tip-toeing down each night, clutching a candelabra to light her way. Skeletal beings, the apparitions waft tendrils of smoke as they claw and lurch their way around; lit with lurid reds and greens, they're almost a part of the architecture. Fans of del Toro know the director has too much compassion for his monsters for them to be the true villains of the piece: the real danger comes from flesh and blood humans. Though the ghosts appear to be a mix of practical effects and CGI, del Toro's seems to have gone a bit too heavy on the CGI, which has the unfortunate result of cheapening their appearance somewhat, particularly when placed inside those stunning sets.
As Wasikowska has demonstrated in films like "Stoker" and "Only Lovers Left Alive," she's very much at home with the gothic, and despite the character's innocent appearance and virtuous nature, she gives Edith a welcome inner strength. Chastain sinks her teeth into her role, delivering a deliciously entertaining performance. Lady Lucille has obviously sinister intentions from the moment she appears, but the depths of her villainy constantly remain a surprise; the actress appears to be having the most fun she's had on screen.
Hiddleston has a trickier part: Thomas could be played as a standard creep, but the actor finds the forgotten humanity that lies underneath. Saddled with the least interesting character to play, Hunnam is fine as the noble "hero" figure, but he doesn't do much with it, leaving him as the cast's weakest link.
With co-writer Matthew Robbins, del Toro has crafted a tale that has the feel of a classic ghost story. The plot reveals don't always surprise, but as they unfold the film takes on the tone of a twisted legend you'd hear told by an excitable tour guide embellishing the sordid history behind the oldest graves that reside in the cemetery. Much like the film's meticulous design, it's the craftsmanship that's truly haunting.