The gifted fantasy/sci-fi/horror specialist has made a film that’s very bloody, and bloody stylish at that, one that’s certainly unequaled in its field for the beauty of its camerawork, sets, costumes and effects. But it’s also conventionally plotted and not surprising or scary at all, as it resurrects hoary horror tropes from decades ago to utilize them in conventional, rather than fresh or subversive, ways. It’s a thousand times more elaborate and sumptuous than the most recent demented domicile tale of note, The Babadook, but not an ounce as frightening or disturbing. Still, on the basis of anticipated scares and del Toro’s following, Universal should get some potent pre-Halloween business out of this beautifully bedecked Gothic-style melodrama.
If the devil were indeed entirely in the details, del Toro would have a genre classic on his hands. This is clearly a filmmaker who relishes research and enriching his work with deep-dish references; the story’s first half, set in Buffalo, New York, in 1901, practically groans with the sense of a society about to assert itself broadly on the world stage, of the expansiveness of the incipient Teddy Roosevelt era rooted in bold initiative and industriousness.
At the same time, the screenplay by the director and veteran scribe Matthew Robbins is deeply informed by the tradition of both literary and cinematic Gothic melodrama, which in context is used to convey the inbred, diseased and inevitably doomed society of royalty and Old World privilege, here represented by a crumbling manse in rural England, the location of the drama’s second half.
Dramatically and even morally, however, Crimson Peak feels like a 1946 film made seven decades later; the conventions are all carried over intact from an earlier time, so that only the technical aspects and gore level identify it as a product of its own era. This is not necessarily a bad thing at all, except that the conventions the film trades in seem so dusty and time-worn that they cry out for revision and/or reconsideration. Del Toro plays it all very straight, so that the only surprise is the lack of same.