Thesis M.A. student Peter Waters reviews Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)
If the quality of a film was solely measured by its production design, costuming, and cinematography, Crimson Peak would be a masterpiece. Unfortunately, Guillermo del Toro's throwback to Victorian-era haunted house movies a la The Innocents covers up its generic story and lack of suspense by throwing as much visual flair and style at you as possible. While his Spanish-language features like Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone employ this excessive style alongside dark and complex stories, his recent American productions like Pacific Rim, del Toro's ode to Japanese monster movies, and now Crimson Peak feel more like straightforward, "fanboy" love letters to genres he grew up with, without realizing their full potential beyond their aesthetic qualities.
The film introduces us to aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), whose namesake is a not-so-subtle homage to Hammer Horror icon Peter Cushing; instead of writing the typical romance novels that was expected of women at that time, Edith plays more to the tune of Mary Shelley, writing ghost stories. Her stories catches the eye of a rich, charming aristocrat Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who after a quick waltz and a few bats of the eye later whisks Edith away to his mansion, Allerdale Hall, because who wouldn't immediately marry a tuxedoed Tom Hiddleston after just a couple days worth of interaction? It becomes obvious very quickly however that this "romance" is founded on false pretenses, and the film suffers from being simply a waiting game until we know things will turn out ugly for everyone involved (something also broadcasted to us within the first 30 seconds of the movie in a pointlessly included "moody" shot from the end of the film). Also living with Sharpe is his piano-playing, black-dressed, so-evil-it's-campy sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), who you just know is bound to have a mental breakdown at any moment.
This triage of actors doesn’t have much to work with. Wasikowska essentially becomes a vacuous damsel-in-distress as she encounters one CGI ghost after another within the painstakingly crafted halls of Allerdale, turning the film into an on-rails haunted house ride. Chastain plays the only character that seems to embrace the over-the-topness a film like this deserves; you've never seen anyone slam down a pot filled with scrambled eggs with such menace before. In a film promising many revelations and secrets (like a re-telling of the Bluebeard tale), Crimson Peak sets them up but never knocks them down. Details like Edith not being able to open certain doors, Thomas's clay-mining invention, or the clever notion that the house is "alive" and bleeds red clay through the snow, never pay off in a meaningful way - it's all just eye candy.
Guillermo del Toro is clearly in love with the "Gothic Romance" genre, but I don't think his style necessarily gels with a story with a romance at its center. None of his other films have much in the way of romance (other than perhaps Liz and Hellboy in the Hellboy films), and none of the relationships in Crimson Peak rang true for me - even the "steamy" sex scene in the middle of the film (in which audiences can collectively swoon at the upper half of Tom Hiddleston's posterior), felt relatively tame and unromantic. Del Toro is so interested in the intricate universes he creates that sometimes the human aspects suffer as a result. While it's not as outright silly as Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak is similarly a genre homage that gets lost in its sensational style.
To find more reviews by Peter Waters, visit his blog, Talking the Talkies.