There is much talk of being eaten in “Crimson Peak.” The mysterious aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) speaks achingly of an all-consuming love. His sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), recognizes the food chain as the organizing principle of the universe. She says as much in a scene that depicts, in close-up, a colony of ants feasting on the corpse of a butterfly. The symbolism comes early and its meaning, that we are slaves to our carnal urges, should be obvious even to the nascent moviegoer. This invigorating Gothic romance, set in a haunted mansion full of sensuous horrors and eye-gouging delights, requires very little thought. It is meant to be devoured.
The film’s director, after all, is Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Pacific Rim”), our greatest cinematic glutton, who is intoxicated by his own wild fancies and equally affected by his influences. Everything he has ever seen, read, heard, or imagined is up there on the screen in vibrant, opulent, meticulous detail. In this case, a gorgeously menacing Gothic mansion, a mutilated ghoul with a story to tell, Lucille’s black-as-coal hair, vats of red clay indistinguishable from cauldrons of blood — and much, much more, one lush excess of set and costume design after another.
Each of del Toro’s movies, though, is more than the sum of his well-publicized artistic appetites. “Crimson Peak” is indebted to the filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, the author Henry James, and other Victorian-era ghost stories, but it is still an original work. What makes it a del Toro film is that it is more visually interesting than narratively so, slower than our modern sensibilities are used to, and paradoxically corny and horrifying, especially in scenes in which innocence, of mind and body, gives way to the ugly, bloody truth.
Mr. del Toro thrives in this tension, and it mirrors his ability to marry a sophisticated command of film language with lowbrow tastes. His monsters-vs.-mechs adventure “Pacific Rim” is a high-concept communion of schlock and awe, while “Crimson Peak” is lurid and elegant. It begins more or less as the virginal heiress and aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) walks briskly to the headquarters of a potential publisher on a rainy day in New York at the turn of the 20th century. A wide and inviting establishing shot taps into our false nostalgia for cityscapes of the era, until a quick cut to the unpaved road dispels the romance, the bottom of Edith’s billowing white dress now blotted by specks of mud. This motif, of messiness below a surface of beauty, will return when Edith is whisked off to England with her new husband, the entrepreneur Thomas, who lives with his imperious sister at a mansion known as Allerdale Hall.
The entire estate is called Crimson Peak, ostensibly because the red clay under the land rises to the surface in the winter, staining the snow, but really because, well, you can probably figure that out for yourself. The plot, to the extent that there is one, is derivative, with the exception of an ultra-violent, freak-show climax. The characters are familiar archetypes, despite a few progressive subversions for a genre that has trafficked in female hysteria. Mr. del Toro has always put complex, resourceful women at the center of his movies and this one is no different. Lucille, though capable of revolting behavior, is the most sympathetic character in the film. Hiddleston is classically suave as Edith’s suitor, with just the right amount of icy detachment.
The real star, though, is Allerdale Hall, whose hidden layers, locked rooms, and dark corridors are more revealing than any bit of dialogue or turn of the plot. Mr. del Toro knows that objects, shapes and architecture hold meaning, that they can trigger memories, that they themselves contain narratives, and so he often emphasizes these parts of his films at the expense of character. Here, an ominous succession of hallway arches, each one evocative of a keyhole, signifies the secrets upon secrets locked away somewhere in the mansion. The floorboards at the house are too easily dislodged, suggesting a history of coverups. Perhaps most frightening of all is an elevator that looks eerily like a cage. “Beware of Crimson Peak,” the ghost of Edith’s mother tells her early in the film. And for God’s sake stay out of the basement.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Oct. 22, 2015.