Early in Crimson Peak, aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) proclaims of a story she’s working on, “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a story with a ghost in it.” It’s a highly self-aware moment from writer/director Guillermo del Toro, as that very same distinction could also be applied to his latest film. Crimson Peak is being marketed as a full-blown spookfest, the period setting and prestigious cast seemingly the only things separating it from a regular monthly installment from the Blumhouse factory. Truth be told, while there are ghosts in play during Crimson Peak, and while they do some freaky things, they exist solely as an accessory in a story that isn’t actually about them, that potentially doesn’t even require them.
In the late 19th Century, wealthy American industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) takes a meeting with an aristocratic British entrepreneur, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is attempting to sell a machine designed to extract pure clay from soil. Cushing, with a lifetime of manual labor under his belt, takes an immediate dislike to Thomas simply due to the man’s dandyish exterior. Edith, however, feels precisely the opposite, instantly falling for Thomas’ charms. Thomas has in tow his frigid sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), and the two of them exude a conspiratorial aura where the Cushings are concerned. After conducting a background search and not liking what it turns up, Carter forces Thomas to break things off with Edith and to leave the country, but Thomas stays, insisting that he cannot bear to leave his love. When Carter is brutally (and I mean brutally) murdered the next morning, Edith quickly finds herself married to Thomas and moving across the pond into the Sharpe’s dilapidated mansion, which is slowly sinking into the bright-red pit of clay resting just beneath the foundation.
Edith, who as a child was visited (and warned about a mysterious Crimson Peak) by the ghost of her mother, begins to witness horrific apparitions throughout the mansion. However, her primary focus always appears to be Thomas, who vacillates between being warm and distant toward her. Warmth, however, is never evinced by the icy Lucille, who doesn’t extend much in the way of hospitality toward Edith except during her frequent, ominous attempts to serve her new sister-in-law some bitter-tasting tea. After awhile, with some prodding from the house’s spirit inhabitants, Edith begins to learn that there exists a sinister history behind the Sharpe siblings, yet she’s too isolated by the house’s desolate location to escape. A suitor (Charlie Hunnam) from back home pieces together her predicament from afar, but perhaps too late.
Crimson Peak has a sumptuous look to it. It’s a gorgeous film, and the visuals of the decaying mansion are a haunting pleasure to look upon. This is hardly a surprise coming from del Toro, who has always possessed a keen eye for set design in his films. However, the problem that continually plagues del Toro’s work is that it often feels as though his visual gifts are all that he has to give. Throughout his oeuvre, he’s given us some amazing sights and impeccably detailed creatures (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy II, parts of Pacific Rim), but one can’t help but wish that del Toro might eventually offer up a story worthy of his meticulously crafted worlds. Crimson Peak wants to be a tragic love story, a murder mystery and a haunted-house thriller all at once, but it doesn’t quite succeed at any of those goals. The bond between Thomas and Edith is never deeply felt, the mystery and machinations of the Sharpes too obvious and the ghosts too infrequent in their appearances. This leaves the film standing solely as a plodding costume drama, glacially paced and not containing the sort of enthralling revelations necessary to help enliven the story’s mundanity.
The characters are a bit frustrating as well. Edith is introduced as a confident, headstrong young woman, more free-spirited and determined than the era in which she lives would seem to allow, yet once she takes up residence with the Sharpes, she becomes a bit of a simp. She takes an eternity to realize that something is amiss with her hosts, she often neglects to mention her ghostly encounters to anyone, and when a crucial piece of mail arrives for her from Milan, she puts a pin in opening it for the longest time. In other words, she becomes the sort of dopey, aggravating character one expects from horror films of a far lesser pedigree than this one, and there is little Wasikowska can do to rescue the character from such poor writing.
Hiddleston and Chastain fare a bit better. It is often difficult to get a handle on how trustworthy or sincere we are expected to regard Thomas from scene to scene. Were the film smarter about the secrets surrounding the characters, that might have been a laudable choice, but the truth is that the gut impression most audience members will make about what’s going on with the Sharpes from the film’s earliest scenes will ultimately prove correct, even if Crimson Peak will proceed to behave as though it has a wealth of enigmas to untangle until the very end. But Hiddleston does commendable work even amidst these limitations, and Chastain has a good time metamorphosing from grim-faced hauteur to vengeful banshee.
Ultimately, Crimson Peak feels like a lot of nothing in particular. The ghost sequences are well done, their grotesque ornateness contrasting nicely against the film’s otherwise formal ambiance (there’s a neat touch where smoke appears to emanate from them; there’s a less neat one where they croak exactly like the girl from The Grudge), but again, they are not what the film is centered around. The real focus of the film is intended to be the unravelling of the schemes of the villains and reveling in the tormented romance between the leads, and these things simply are not as compelling as they are intended. del Toro knows how to transport us to vividly realized fantasy worlds, he just needs to figure out what to do once he gets us there.
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