Crimson Peak is writer-director Guillermo Del Toro trying to have his cake and eat it too. On one hand, he wants it to be an atmospheric Grand Guignol horror movie, complete with ghosts, creaky mansions and gory murders. On the other, he’s aspiring to craft a lush and sexy version of a Jane Austen novel, with Victorian costumes, candle-lit balls and sexual tension. It almost works but the movie has one glaring problem that stifles its goals: it’s neither very scary nor very romantic. And that’s a crushing shame considering Del Toro’s pedigree, the film’s promising start and the stunning ingenuity that went into crafting the film’s ravishing look.
The beautiful Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring American writer who lives in turn-of-the-century Buffalo, NY with her banker father (Jim Beaver)—one of the most powerful men in town. As we learn in the film’s prologue, Edith has had the ability to see ghosts ever since she was a child when the ghost of her dead mother visited her to warn her, “Beware of Crimson Peak.” When brooding Englishman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) arrives in town, along with his bitchy Lady Macbeth-like sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), to convince Edith’s father to become an investor in his budding clay mining business, Edith is immediately smitten by the man’s class, tenderness, and dashing good-looks.
But daddy Cushing, suspecting a hidden agenda in the Sharpe family, is quick to warn her against falling for his charm. When daddy is found dead, his face gruesomely smashed in half at a bathhouse, a devastated Edith ignores the warning of her long-time friend and suitor Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), marrying Thomas, and moving across the Atlantic to live with him and his sister at their decrepit mansion in the English moors. Little does Edith realize that the decaying house she’s now living in is the very “Crimson Peak” that the ghostly figure of her mother warned her against all those years ago.
As previously noted, Crimson Peak tries to be two things at once – a Gothic horror and a Gothic romance. A movie can succeed at being both but provided its screenplay contains enough mystery to sustain suspense, and enough emotional stakes to care for the characters. Despite being well-paced and entertaining, Crimson Peak fails as a cohesive whole because Del Toro’s screenplay (co-written with Matthew Robbins) is devoid of anything resembling mystery or intrigue. Furthermore, his leading actors, Hiddleston and Wasikowska, don’t have much chemistry. This is a perplexing situation because both actors are talented thesps who have elevated far flimsier material in the past. The biggest disappointment however is that the central mystery is laughably predictable and derivative to the bone—something that smells of been there, done that. You know you’re in trouble when a person not usually gifted at figuring out plot twists had already guessed the direction of the plot half-way through. What fun is a mystery when you can predict the outcome a good half hour before it’s unveiled?
Del Toro, who pays homage to a bountiful of classic cinema from Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Notorious to more explicitly, the Hammer horror movies of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, certainly knows what he’s doing when it comes to crafting a memorable looking picture. From the exquisitely ornate production design by Thomas Sanders to Kate Hawley’s opulent costumes that work harder than the screenplay to define its characters to Dan Laustsen’s sumptuous cinematography that gets under your skin, Crimson Peak has been meticulously designed with a tooth comb—no expense has been spared. Even his actors, Chastain in particular, are game, giving it their all. I only wish that that same level of imagination and meticulous attention to detail had been put in service of a plot and characters worth a damn. As it stands, Crimson Peak is nothing more than window dressing.
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Screenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam
Producer: Guillermo Del Toro, Callum Green, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull
Running time: 119 minutes
Companies: Universal Pictures
Rating: R (for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language)