Crimson Peak is a classic case of style over substance resulting in a hollow movie experience that never fully reaches its potential.
Crimson Peak starts off in late 19th century America, where we meet young would-be author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) and her no-nonsense tycoon father, Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). The Cushings’ world takes a dark turn when a mysterious stranger named Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) shows up on their doorstep, with a proposition for Carter regarding a machine used to extract clay from the earth. Carter immediately feels that something is off with Sir Thomas and his strange sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), but Edith is swept off her feet by Thomas’ charms, and before long, the two are married.
Cut to the mountain region of northern England, where Edith finds herself living in the dilapidated mansion of the Sharpe family, with Thomas and Lucille watching her every move. During the long, dark, nights, Edith finds herself visited by horrible apparitions trapped inside the house; before long, the ghostly horrors of “Crimson Peak” are pulling her back through the Sharpe family history, to secrets long-buried that conceal horrific truths – both mortal and supernatural.
The new film by cult-favorite filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak is a love-letter to classic Gothic horror films, presented with a stunning modern sheen of impeccable direction, production/costume design, and cinematography. Yet, while the wrapping is great, the actual gift inside the wrapping turns out to be flimsy and weak – a cheap toy that looks nice, but hardly entertains.
The positive aspect of Crimson Peak is that it is, on a directorial level, one of the finest projects del Toro has done. The period-piece world that the Mexican filmmaker builds is one of Gothic beauty, with shots, blocking, sequencing, and staging that create a truly cinematic horror experience, worthy of the big screen (if not IMAX). As always, del Toro’s creature designs and visual effects are top-notch, resulting in some memorably horrifying ghostly entities, featured in some impressively designed horror sequences. Unfortunately, the brilliance of the film pretty much ends with the craftsmanship.
In what is becoming a growing trend for Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak has much more style and imagination than it does substance or narrative resonance. The script for the film was written by del Toro and Matthew Robbins (Mimic). The pair previously collaborated on the script for the 2010 film, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and it seems they learned little from the missteps of that earlier venture; on a narrative level, Crimson Peak is pretty much a misfire across the board.
The story is derives itself from so many other horror movies and stories we’ve seen before – including all the so-called “twists,” which are predictable to anyone who has seen a horror film in the 21st century. Even at an efficient two hours, del Toro indulges far too much in his period piece introduction, not even delivering us to the titular location until nearly halfway through the movie’s runtime. For a supposed horror film, there is also very little tension or genuine scares; due to the flawed approach to the story, there is a often a lack of stakes or tension – especially in the ghost scenes. Overall, Crimson Peak plays like a ride at an amusement park: we sit back and take the journey, but the artifice of animatronic people and a predictable pathway stifle the level of interaction or enjoyment that we derive from the proceedings.
Speaking of animatronic people: the cast of Crimson Peak has some of the most popular (Charlie Hunnam) and/or acclaimed (Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska) actors of the day, and yet finds a way to stifle their range and depth, turning them into robots reciting a clunky and mechanical script. In fact, Crimson Peak would be a smart work of classic horror satirization if it weren’t taking itself so woefully seriously. In a straightforward context, scenes of Hiddleston and Wasikowska’s melodramatic exchanges, or Chastain’s creepy menace come off as overblown and cheesy, rather than having theatrical gravitas. The presence of Charlie Hunnam is a miscasting carried over from Pacific Rim, as his character, Dr. Alan Michael, is both poorly drawn, and poorly portrayed by the Sons of Anarchy star. As an ensemble of prominent actors, it’s also surprising that there’s so little interactive chemistry between the cast members. All in all, it seems the pitfalls of the material were something the cast simply couldn’t elevate.
In the end, Crimson Peak is a classic case of style over substance resulting in a hollow movie experience that never fully reaches its potential. For del Toro, it’s more evidence that his imagination far out paces his ability as a cinematic storyteller – but whether or not that will be enough to dissuade his hardcore fanbase is debatable. While some see del Toro as a modern auteur who can do no wrong, horror fans coming to Crimson Peak purely for a great horror experience are likely to find that – like the Sharpes themselves – the pretty, polished veneer is only a facade, and what lies beneath is so much worse.
Crimson Peak is now in theaters everywhere and IMAX. It is 119 minutes long and is Rated R for bloody violence, some sexual content and brief strong language.
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