As some disgruntled horror fiends discovered this past weekend, Crimson Peak is a movie more interested in channeling a dead genre than in devoting its attention to the menacing specters of the dead that were featured heavily in its marketing campaign. Yes, Guillermo del Toro's latest does have its ghosts, skeletal haunts cloaked in wisps of black or red or white like they're just keeping their ectoplasmic forms from dispersing in the air. They're creepy-pretty, the wraiths, but they're around to emerge like triggered video game cutscenes and offer information the movie's trembling heroine is too frightened to pick up on.
They're accessories to the main story of Crimson Peak, not the focus, because Crimson Peak isn't a horror movie — it's a Gothic romance, as Del Toro explained in a "foreword" handed out before the movie screened for critics. Though journalists are given press packets all the time, there's something about preparing a handout to explain your directorial intentions that feels tantamount to admitting defeat before your film opens. And Crimson Peak — which is about Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a girl who can see spirits, and Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), the impoverished, possibly sinister British aristocrat she falls in love with — turned out to be a tough sell at the box office. Of course — it's a film geek exercise trying to pass itself off as something more mainstream.
The type of movie Del Toro wanted to make isn't extinct — in fact, Wasikowska has become its pallid princess, between Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre and Park Chan-wook's Stoker — but Del Toro wanted to make a lavish version, an "old-fashioned, grand Hollywood production." His words hint at the self-consciousness that leaves the movie, while visually sumptuous, detached rather than driven by the swooning emotion for which it aspires. Crimson Peak sometimes feels like the film equivalent of that couple living in an approximation of the Victorian era — a reenactment rather than something that stands on its own, all painstaking details with none of the animation needed to provide a reason for the re-creation.
Except when it comes to Jessica Chastain.
Chastain knows full well that she has the most iconic part in Crimson Peak, one you could vamp the hell out of at a Halloween shindig — hair up or in the crown of braids in which she spends most of the movie. Wasikowska in her giant puffed sleeves and Hiddleston with his Byronic hair may be palely picture-perfect together (and even pastier as living characters than they were as members of the undead in Only Lovers Left Alive), but it's Chastain as Lucille Sharpe, Thomas's forbidding older sister, who has all of the fun. It's really only when Chastain is onscreen that Crimson Peak snaps into focus and achieves the a functional balance between homage and drama in its own right.
Lucille doesn't seem like the kind of gal who's ever laughed in her life, but Chastain's funny in the part, so severe you can't help but snicker. Lucille looks likely to snap in two were she to attempt something like bending at the waist — buttoned and starched and pulled taut, and seething beneath the yards of corsetry. She's a better embodiment of the dark secrets and repressed emotions with which the story is rife than Edith, who by design is a naif, and than Thomas, who by design is aloof and elusive. She brushes dying butterflies on her face and plays the piano by herself beneath the glowering portrait of the siblings' awful mother.
Lucille is the madwoman in the attic meets Mrs. Danvers, the disturbed housekeeper played best by Judith Anderson in 1940's Rebecca. Chastain's performance and the way that she's able to steamroll Wasikowska and Hiddleston, two very likable actors leaning hard into their antiquated parts, highlights the trouble with what Del Toro has valiantly attempted. Crimson Peak is an effort to make a throwback movie with modern effects and modern sex scenes, but it can't contend with the modern gaze with which we're looking at it.
Crimson Peak is not revisionist, but it feels like it should be, because its protagonist is constructed to be so artless and accepting. (Seriously, if your new home seeps blood-red mud and has a hole in the roof through which snow is falling, run far away.) Edith is the kind of character the story happens to rather than follows. In that, it resembles another devotedly old-fashioned movie from earlier this year — Cinderella.
Lucille may be off her rocker, but she's also more interesting, and she, at least, has taken charge of her own terrible destiny — a shadowy reflection of the bright ingenue. In a movie so in love with darkness, the fact that she's not more central is a sign that the characters are just as much props as the beautiful set design and the ghosts wandering through it.