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Del Toro’s ‘Crimson Peak’ alluring but far from scary

by

Special To The Japan Times

Real estate, sexual passion and family secrets are crammed into the atmospheric thriller “Crimson Peak,” directed by Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Pacific Rim”). I have an inkling Del Toro dislikes modern society and abhors modern notions of security. His films always unfold in lavish settings that trigger all the senses — and safety seems to be banned from the premises.

To absorb the extraordinary details, colors, shapes and situations that are rife with layered danger is to witness this director’s fierce commitment to his own vision of what life could, or should, be. Del Toro’s latest, “Crimson Peak,” is a case in point. Set in the early 20th century, the action takes place almost entirely in the confines of a dark, decaying, sprawling manor house in northern England called Allerdale Hall. The hall sits atop a mine of red clay that brings about all kinds of building stress: red liquid oozing from walls, thick red water clogging the pipes and trickling down faucets, as if the whole place is in a permanent state of menstrual seizure. From above, rain and snow constantly seep through the cracks in the gables and through the ceilings. Yuck.

But del Toro has always trafficked in very expensive, well curated yuck. And as a result, “Crimson Peak” is all sexy gothic decor mixed with dungeon-like discomfort. Sense the icy chill wafting in from doorways, hear the clang of many keys as one of the owners of the hall strolls from room to room. Speaking of which, each chamber is huge, cold and unforgiving, complete with trap doors, butlers’ bells that don’t work and locked armoires that most certainly contain skeletons.

Crimson Peak
Rating
Run Time 119 mins
Language English

The question of who lives here seems less crucial than the question of who would want to return here once they leave. However, owner aristocrat siblings Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Lucille (Jessica Chastain) Sharpe seem intent on going home. The brother and sister were in New York, looking around for a rich American to sponsor Thomas’ toy inventions. Thomas fails to find one, but he does snag American bride Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and convinces her to cross the Atlantic to settle into his ancestral manor house. Charmed by the notion of living in history and totally under the sway of her charismatic fiance, Edith agrees. Everyone tries to dissuade her — including loyal best friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) — but Edith ignores them and sets sail with the Sharpes.

As soon as the three have settled back into Allerdale Hall, Lucille morphs into a forbidding mother-in-law caricature, hovering jealously over the couple and refusing to let Edith have access to most of the rooms. Edith had come here, partly to please Thomas but also to get away from the ghost of her mother who died young, and who appears periodically to whisper an ominous warning to her daughter: “Beware of Crimson Peak.” It turns out that this is the nickname of the hall, given by the village locals who have long lived in fear of the place. Big mistake for Edith, but the realization comes too late.

Still, Edith is an American gal who refuses to go down without a fight. She starts sleuthing the secrets of the place: why the Sharpes have no interest in maintaining the building; why Lucille is so possessive of her brother; and other issues that are pretty standard fare in the haunted house genre. While the story itself echoes the classic, young-bride-at-old-house horror tale “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier, the sexual tension permeating the whole package is “Killing Me Softly” (2002), albeit reduxed.

Wasikowska anchors the film so that it doesn’t drift out to the sea of parody — she brings just the right blend of innocence and seduction, victim of circumstance and woman with her own agenda. But then Wasikowska is Hollywood’s acknowledged “Queen of Creep” — whether she can bring the same nuance to films of a nonhorror nature remains a mystery.