Crimson Peak (2015) / Mystery-Horror
MPAA Rated: R for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Jim Beaver, Charlie Hunnam
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Review published October 18, 2015
Starting off in Buffalo, NY, at the turn of the 20th century, Mia Wasikowska (Madame Bovary, The Double) stars as an aspiring writer named Edith Cushing (nod to Hammer Horror thespian Peter Cushing, no doubt) is struggling to get publishers to accept her ghost story novel in an era in which female authors are relegated to the romance genre. Thought to be on a clear trajectory to become a spinster due to her independent spirit, Edith is soon courted by a well-to-do British man named Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston, Thor: The Dark World).
The two eventually marry, and Edith uproots to Thomas's massive but rundown mansion in England that has been built upon a mountain made out of red clay, which has caused the bottom floors to seep eerie blood-like ooze. Also living there is Thomas's enigmatic sister Lady Lucille (Chastain, The Martian), who seems to have tendrils in every corner, including in her brother's mind and heart. Proverbial skeletons fill the closet, but actual ghosts too, as the promising beginning of a new life may also come to a quick end for Edith, if she doesn't keep her wits about her.
If Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, Hellboy II), a B-movie storyteller at heart, is going to continue to play the role of an A-list director, he'd do himself and his audience a service by allowing someone with much more scripting talent to take his story ideas and put them to paper. As a story, Crimson Peak is a mish-mash of tropes you'll find in other notable classic romance and gothic horror works, as well as Hitchcock's Best Picture winner of 1940, Rebecca, which does tend to make it a frustrating experience to follow given that the protagonist seems absolutely clueless, despite given clues served to her on a proverbial silver platter throughout. When your dead mother comes to haunt you as a ghost with the only admonition being to, "Beware of Crimson Peak", and you marry and move in with a man whose mansion resides on a mountain of red clay, you're probably not so bright that you'd make for a particularly ingenious author.
Get used to being ahead of the game throughout the course of Crimson Peak. There are probably very few in the audience who will also be surprised at the revelation of the nature of the relationship between siblings Thomas and Lucille, telegraphed almost from their introduction. And, only someone asleep through the middle of the film will likely be surprised at the reveal of the culprit of a murder that is shot with some ambiguity. Or in which food or drink may or may not be tainted with poison at any given time. And while you're busy projecting the film's outcome, Del Toro is also busy hammering home its themes with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, stating quite early that Edith's book, like Del Toro's movie, is not a ghost story, but a story with ghosts in it, and that those ghosts are metaphors for the past. I guess your frustration at the lack of the film's scares will have to be resolved by knowing it isn't intended to be a horror film, even with horrific supernatural elements and brutal violence as narrative devices, and those sparser-than-you'd-think eerie moments represent the best the film has to offer from a story standpoint.
Crimson Peak will garner some interest among those who are largely entertained by colorful and vivid set and costume design, no doubt inspired by the Italian giallo films, as much more emphasis seems to have gone to getting the look of the story right, if not the plot or dialogue. And what's the excuse for the dozen or so times in which the dubbing is off in this film? It's been a long time since I've seen a film in which I can tell that the characters aren't saying the words we're hearing in even one instance, but Crimson Peak's instances are so obvious that I can only think they must have been intentional, perhaps a throwback in style to those Italian chillers, who at least had the excuse of being overdubbed out of their native language for the reasons why the lips don't match the words.
Though the run time is at a comfortable two hours, given that Del Toro is offering 90% style and 10% substance, it feels much longer than it needs to be to tell the same story well. Just as with his equally divisive Pacific Rim, a good percentage of its viewers are mystified by those who think it's good, though I find it to be great fun. Looks like I'm on the other side of the equation with Crimson Peak, as I'm at a loss to explain why some critics, and some standard viewers, seem to adore it. As a filmmaking exercise in capturing an essence of kitschy gothic stories, it's brilliant in its own way, but as a standalone film, it's paltry goods, completely vacant devoid of its allusions to more earnest films long forgotten except by film buffs like Del Toro and a smattering of other staunch advocates of old-school chills.
Despite its weak story and plot elements, some viewers may still come away liking Crimson Peak for its gorgeous visual designs and its attractive and talented cast, though the lack of true sparks between gorgeous actors like Wasikowska and Hiddleston is a significant liability, especially as there's more ham in the performances than at your neighborhood deli. It casts a pretty picture, no doubt, but everyone's dressed up with the only place to go being too familiar to evoke neither genuine surprises nor frights. As for me, for as breathtaking as the feast for the eyes sometimes is, I struggled mightily to stay interested in the goings-on within Crimson Peak, not caring a lick for these characters, their stories, or even for the reasons behind the gruesome apparitions that appear at seemingly random moments.
For a film whose story surrounds the attempt to jump-start a floundering mining operation, it's perhaps ironic that Crimson Peak puts so much of its stock in surface pleasures.
©2015 Vince Leo