Gorgeous but vacant. No, it’s not that new palatial estate they just built on the outskirts of town; it’s the new gothic/horror/romance film, Crimson Peak. Director Guillermo del Toro and his production team have crafted a truly breathtaking visual spectacle. Alas, there are no scares, just lots of unconvincing romance and a premise that’s been re-cycled so many times you can see each twist coming from a mile away. This is an ambitious miscalculation that should have waited for the script to catch up with the visuals.
The first act of Crimson Peak starts as a delightful study in late 19th century manners and class warfare. Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer who lives under the protective but loving eye of her snobby father, Carter (a criminally under-appreciated Jim Beaver). Carter all but throws Edith into the arms of the town doctor, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who just happens to love detective novels. It would be a misnomer to say that Crimson Peak employs lots of foreshadowing; it’s more like blaring sirens and semaphore flags. Still, the costume and set design are immaculate, particularly during a high-society shindig where Edith falls in love with the dashing baronet, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston).
Thomas, of course, doesn’t measure up to Carter’s exacting standards, so he hires an investigator to dig up some dirt on the baronet and his sister, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Speaking of digging up dirt… Thomas is also building a massive automatic excavator that he thinks will revolutionize the ore mining business and bring him untold riches. Thomas convinces Edith to marry him, gives her a weird ring that (presumably) does something supernatural, and then whisks her away to his dilapidated Allerdale Hall estate in northern England. This is right about the time the story collapses beneath its own ambitions.
Again, del Toro does an impeccable job with the visual world. Allerdale Hall looks and sounds amazing. Built upon the soft, blood-red clay, Allerdale literally creaks and groans beneath its own weight. Outside, the rhythmic pounding of Thomas’ massive excavator becomes like an ever-present drumbeat. Cavernous rooms filled with bizarre tchotchkes dwarf their inhabitants, and long corridors are festoon with creepy-crawlies and black moths. A hole in the ceiling allows the snow to trickle inside, accumulating in a cushy snowpack that’s just begging for someone to fall into it later. It’s a celebration of set design and creepy visuals that never adds up to much, unfortunately, and is the source of some unintentionally hilarity in the film’s final act.
Make no mistake, however, Crimson Peak is all business. After Jim Beaver departs and the setting shifts to Allerdale, this becomes a painfully earnest affair, complete with stilted dialogue and pseudo-romantic gibberish. Jessica Chastain is the only character permitted to have any fun, chewing scenery as the delightfully-wicked sister who harbors a deep, dark secret. In fact, there are so many secrets bogging down the plot that Hiddleston is forced to remain a mystery throughout. He disappears for extended stretches of time, ostensibly, to tend his precious machine. Worse still, Ms. Wasikowska is clearly overmatched by the material, looking neither comfortable nor natural in her 19th century surroundings. These deficiencies, coupled with the obvious lack of chemistry between Wasikowska and Hiddleston, kill any chance of making this an affective gothic-romance.
The ghost story is only slightly more interesting, due in large part to the special effects work. These ghosts are vaporous shape-shifters that sometimes take a less-ethereal form when covered in the blood-red clay, called ‘crimson peak.’ Edith informs us in the opening narration that, “Ghosts are real, that much I know.” Unfortunately, they have to wait around until all the boring exposition is finished. The attempted scares feel almost like an afterthought, as do a couple of scenes featuring unnecessarily gratuitous violence. It’s as if the filmmakers understood how dull the romance story was, so they artificially injected random shocks to keep us interested. Sadly, it doesn’t work.
There is so much to admire in Crimson Peak that it’s a pity it falls so flat. From the lavish sets and costumes, to the evocative sound design and cinematography, this is a noteworthy technical achievement in the horror genre. But the story is so stale—so predictable and bereft of tension—it makes all the impressive adornments feel wasted. The hallmarks of del Toro’s genius are still present, but this is a rare misfire from the gifted filmmaker.