Guillermo del Toro takes a clear, unbridled pleasure in sharing the wildest worlds of his imagination. Like Wes Anderson — and this is probably the sole cinematic instinct the two directors have in common — del Toro loves to spread his favorite playthings all over the screen. While Anderson presents them meticulously arranged, under glass, and with an implicit instruction that they must not be touched or moved even a millimeter, del Toro upends the toy box and romps delightedly as the colorful contraptions come raining down. It’s not that he has no control. The film that remains his finest proves decisively that del Toro can craft his visions with extraordinary care. Increasingly, though, he seems to be asking himself, ‘Why would I want control when raucous abandon is so much fun?’ That was certainly the case with his entertainingly unhinged big monster movies Pacific Rim, and the sensibility resounds like cannon fire in his latest, Crimson Peak.
In this instance, del Toro is training his mind and camera on a sweeping gothic horror-romance, the sort of film that hasn’t been seen much since Hammer Films stopped offering regular paychecks to Peter Cushing. Making his inspiration clear, del Toro borrows that classic actor’s last name for the protagonist of Crimson Peak. In early Twentieth Century New York State, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is a a headstrong young woman with aspirations toward a literary life. Her path is diverted when a British baronet (Tom Hiddleston) comes seeking investment dollars that could be provided by her father (Jim Beaver), who dies under mysterious circumstances shortly after expressing his disapproval of the budding courtship between his daughter and the ambitious young man. The baronet marries Edith and squires her away to his decaying estate in the British highlands, where he leaves with his imposing sister (the ever-invaluable Jessica Chastain). It is there, of course, that Edith’s troubles really begin.
The film is stuffed with feats of art direction, set construction, and costume design. Every scrap of cloth and hunk of scenery is put together with a florid understatement that suits the grand drama del Toro unfolds. And there are multiple flares of ingenuity, from the gaping holes in the roof that allow snowflakes to constantly waft down within the structure to a geographical justification for blood-like liquid oozing out of the walls and sputtering from the faucets. Crimson Peak is at its gnarled heart a vividly insistent ghost story, and while the design of the actual specters is overly familiar from any number of similarly haunted but far less ornate features, del Toro has an impishly effective way with spookily twitching doors and menacing clicks and moans emanating from just around the corner. What he’s missing this time out is a keen sense of pacing. Crimson Peak, for all its gruesome loveliness, too often drags when it should be bounding furiously. It’s as if del Toro, understandably enraptured by the trappings on display, wants to linger as long as he can. Though I can’t wholly blame him, I still think the film would be improved if the storytelling didn’t creak as much as the floorboards.