“Crimson Peak” may be a pastiche, but what a pastiche! Director-co-writer Guillermo del Toro seems to have poured every Gothic literary and filmic influence into his cauldron: “Jane Eyre,” “Rebecca,” “The Woman in White,” a bit of Poe, a dash of James Whale’s “The Old Dark House.” There are elements of steampunk and B-movie horror, of Louisa May Alcott and Alfred Hitchcock, and they’re all swirled together with outrageous production design and eldritch period costumes and del Toro’s house goblins and grue. You could get a contact high from the colors alone.
The story line is similarly stitched together, but it’s put over with conviction by the cast. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, a fragile Gilded Era beauty in Buffalo. She dreams of becoming a published author, but her attentions are diverted by Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a British baronet low on cash and long on silken charm. Papa Cushing (a gruff Jim Beaver) doesn’t trust the interloper, nor does Edith’s manly ophthalmologist suitor (Charlie Hunnam), but the girl is approved by Sharpe’s older sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), a chilly, ashen beauty. Some things happen, and then some other things, and Edith and her new husband and sister-in-law arrive in the English moors at the ancestral Allerdale Hall.
Which is so immense and decrepit that it’s a hoot — Downton Abbey after a century of heavy drinking. The mansion sits atop a deposit of blood-red clay that oozes through floorboards and seeps through snowdrifts; there are holes in the ceiling and poltergeists in the hallways. In the basement . . . well, Edith has to discover some secrets for herself.
Del Toro is one of the authentic madmen of modern movies but he’s also a disciplined craftsman. “Crimson Peak” isn’t as original as his most notable success, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), and it lacks the junky exhilaration of his “Hellboy” movies — it’s derivative but it works. Even the sound mix is inspired; when Edith removes her hatpin from her hair, we hear the subtle shiiing of an unsheathed sword; when Lucille serves up a cup of poisoned tea, her fingernail screeches discreetly along the rim. This is what Tim Burton might make if he were capable of sustaining a movie all the way from one end to the other.
“Crimson Peak” isn’t awash in gore, but the violence, when it comes, is inventive and bloody and genuinely upsetting; just when you feel del Toro might be camping it up, something comes along to freeze the smirk on your face. The movie is ultimately about atmosphere and little else — it evaporates into curlicues of smoke, like the otherworldly apparitions that bring Edith warnings throughout the story. But Wasikowska nicely balances naivete with spine, and Chastain is something very special as Lucille, a poised pre-Raphaelite beauty with looney-toon eyes. She’s Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers rolled into one, maybe with a bit of Lizzie Borden on the side.
It’s possible that the audiences for “Crimson Peak” will cancel each other out — those seeking a swoony Gothic romance and those looking for a good scream — and it’s true that the film is less than the sum of its parts. But del Toro’s creativity, the joy he finds in splicing together pieces of the movies and books and characters he loves, is hard to resist. This is a film that believes deeply in ghosts, and half of them are in its director’s head.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Reading and Natick. 119 minutes. R (bloody violence, some sexual content, brief strong language)