Crimson Peak (2015)

Genres - Horror  |   Sub-Genres - Haunted House Film, Supernatural Horror  |   Release Date - Oct 16, 2015 (USA)  |   Run Time - 119 min.  |   Countries - Canada , Mexico , United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Jack Rodgers

Watching Crimson Peak, it's tempting to wonder if Guillermo del Toro should continue on as a filmmaker or retire to become a designer of theme-park attractions. He's a genius at crafting surreal, gorgeous environments -- and populating them with horrifying monsters and resplendently costumed individuals -- but his insistence on writing his own scripts is dragging him down. Del Toro seems to view plot and character development as simply a clothesline on which to hang a series of brain-searing images, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing (plenty of great directors have been stylists above all else), it means he keeps getting undermined by his scripts' odd tendency to never give him free rein to indulge in style over substance. Crimson Peak, the latest example, tells an extremely familiar tale (anyone who's seen even a handful of gothic romance/horror films could probably guess its third-act twists from the commercials alone), but it does so in such laborious fashion that it's almost two hours long. Why? If you're just riffing on existing tropes in a genre exercise, couldn't this story be told in 90 or 100 minutes? And did the plot need to be so formulaic that we're ahead of the protagonist until the climactic bloodbath? It's frustrating because almost every surface aspect of the movie is great: The production design, the costumes, the acting, the cinematography. But a visionary director should have something more to offer: Either twisting the plot or the characters in an unexpected direction, or using the story as a springboard for the sort of weirdness or kinkiness or personal idiosyncrasies that were missing from past versions of this tale. Crimson Peak, for all its strengths, fails at both.

The film opens in 1901 Buffalo, as aspiring author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is in the midst of trying to get her manuscript accepted by publishers who think that ladies shouldn't be writing ghost stories (or anything but romance, for that matter). She insists that her work isn't a ghost story but "a story with ghosts in it," a reference to the movie she's in that, like the fact that she shares a last name with legendary Hammer Horror actor Peter Cushing, feels too thuddingly obvious to be clever. She's an independent woman who scorns the small-minded ladies around her who are eager for a husband, until she's quickly won over by a British baronet named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who has all of the charisma and good breeding of the aristocracy but none of the money.

Following an upsetting personal tragedy, Edith impulsively marries Sharpe and moves with him to England, in the process breaking the heart of Dr. Alan McMichael, the suitor who's been pining for her from afar (Charlie Hunnam, whose stiffness is put to good use as the duller of the two love interests). Across the Atlantic, Edith discovers that her new home is a dilapidated mansion built atop a mountain of red clay, where the floorboards ooze with the red substance if you press down on them too hard and a hole in the roof lets snow and leaves drift in. And she's forced to share the abode with Thomas' not-quite-all-there sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who insists early on that Edith doesn't need a copy of the house keys. After all, there are places she shouldn't go...never look around in the basement...no, we're not concealing any dark, depraved secrets, why do you ask?

Okay, nobody actually says that last line, but the dialogue and acting don't leave a lot of room for subtlety. And if you're going that route, why not really commit to it? Alas, the only actor who truly rises to the occasion is Chastain, whose Lucille seems like she's relying on every shred of inner strength she has to keep from falling into madness, and who does so without crossing the line into camp. Wasikowska and Hiddleston are both quite good, but they don't have a lot of chemistry together, and that's a big problem when your movie is a gothic romance about people making operatic gestures in the name of all-consuming passion. They don't seem like a close enough couple for Edith even to commit to leaving her home and living in a drafty mansion in the middle of nowhere, much less to trigger the violence at the end.

Credit where credit is due: Once all of the characters catch up to the audience's suspicions and everything goes to hell, the third act delivers the film's strongest stretch (although don't except any big surprises from the ending, either). Ultimately, it feels churlish to complain too much about Crimson Peak's flaws when it's frequently so beautiful to look at: Its setting is one of the most vividly realized haunted mansions in movie history, and del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen linger over every tiny detail with great affection. This is a familiar story retold fairly well, and there are worse ways to spend the night. But it makes you wish that del Toro might someday take a crack at designing a Las Vegas casino or Disney World attraction, something that would allow him to embrace his genius for architecture without having to worry about the characters moving through it. Until then, he could at least try adapting someone else's material for a change.