Guillermo del Toro will be the first to tell you that Crimson Peak is not a horror movie, it’s a Gothic romance — far more Frankenstein than Friday the 13th. But for a Gothic romance, del Toro’s ostensibly spooky film held little romance and far fewer scares, instead jumping erratically from one mixed metaphor to another with turns so obvious that suspense is all but non-existent.
The waifish Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the spinster daughter of a rich New York businessman with a penchant for seeing ghosts. One ghost in particular haunts her from a young age: a terrifying specter of her deceased mother, who warns her to “beware of Crimson Peak” in the opening scenes of the film. Edith interprets this warning to mean “please disregard my warning entirely to embark upon a path of spinsterhood and Gothic romance manuscript penning,” which isn’t all bad; del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins give Wasikowska some era-incongruous feminist zingers that land nonetheless.
Early on in the film, Edith falls quickly in love with Thomas Sharpe, played by Tom Hiddleston, an English baron with a hidden agenda and a creepy sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain). Hiddleston’s acting, though not his best, is passable, but it’s Jessica Chastain — who has held role after tour de force role in recent years — who stumbles badly with a surprising miscast as Lucille. She immediately undoes all the good will she built up as a disco loving weirdo in The Martian via one unnecessarily dramatic dash down a flight of stairs — magnificent silk bellowing in her wake. She overacts from the moment we first see her angrily play a piano at an otherwise quite lovely party in Buffalo, New York. Continuing in the miscasting, Charlie Hunnam plays an entirely unconvincing New York city upper society doctor in love with Edith and her ghost visions, proving that though his ass remains a work of a God, he truly had no business being cast in 50 Shades of Grey. His brooding broods the hardest that any brooding could brood, which earns him no points but is still worth noting.
The siblings harbor a dark secret of course, one that would have benefited from a touch of subtlety, rather than the broad daylight meeting under a tree in which Lucille grills Thomas on whether Edith is “the right one, this time,” before twisting a blood red ring off her left ring finger and reminding Thomas that she’ll be expecting it back, all while shooting him doleful looks anytime he gets within ten feet of his beloved Edith. You don’t have to be too Sharpe (sorry) to figure out that the tension between the siblings isn’t your run-of-the-mill sibling rivalry.
After Edith’s remaining parent is mysteriously murdered, she marries and moves right into the Sharpes’ British manor, Allderdale House, a dilapidated mansion slowly sinking into acres of red clay. Unsurprisingly, the siblings have nicknamed the megashack Crimson Peak. Who would have guessed? Edith quickly learns that her new life — one that hinges on her transferring her father’s estate over to Thomas, currently seeking capital for a contraption to harvest his land’s clay — isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
When Lucille isn’t busy passing out glares so smoldering you’d think she was auditioning for the last season of America’s Next Top Model, Edith is haunted by animatronic red clay-covered skeletons, a perennially empty marital bed, and a persistent cough that has her hacking up blood. The skeletons are rarely terrifying, and, given the high-quality CGI used by del Toro, look fairly out of step with the ramshackle feel of a crumbling house in the 19th century. Though it takes nearly half the movie to get past setup to reach Edith’s turnaround (a feat that could have been achieved far earlier, had she perhaps questioned why the man she loved dumped her, came back, and her father turned up dead the next day), this is where the fun is supposed to begin, if del Toro is to be believed.
Thomas and Edith’s true love story is born as the horror story in the film takes shape — a nice idea, had del Toro been able to execute it. Instead, every character’s interpersonal relationships fall flat, forcing their acting hands to seem like over-exaggerated tropes. Hiddleston and Wasikowska flirt on the edges of having chemistry, though neither connects well enough to launch a new storyline from the middle of a movie. Chastain, perhaps so taken with the chance to play a character who gets to be gleefully unrestrained, allows herself too much freedom to go maniacal and could stand to dial it all back multiple notches. Hunnam’s Alex McMichael loves Edith, but his grand gestures to save her life feel forced at best, and wholly inauthentic at worst. The side character relationships continue in much the same vein.
Storylines are abandoned as quickly as they are created here: black moths signifying death appear often, but with little impact on the film itself. The siblings have roots in con artistry, though they’re aware of the ghosts in their own home. Thomas is trying to raise money for his company, though it’s unclear if this is what he really wants, or what he thinks he wants. The love story between Thomas and Edith is contrived; a multi-second shot of Hiddleston’s ass flexing as he’s inside Wasikowska duringtheir first consummation helps salvage some of this.
Ultimately, Crimson Peak is a movie that tries too much too quickly. The con artist siblings have a dark secret that they’re reticent to share with the third person in their lives, proving nothing good ever comes from a threesome. Ghosts and ghouls appear to haunt at first, and quickly change course to gently aid and abet, before ghosting entirely. The closing fight scenes are ridiculous, but the final scene introduces new levels of special effects that were so laughable I wasn’t sure I was in a movie theater anymore, so much as one of my usual erotic fever dreams about Hiddleston.
Del Toro tried, and his effort isn’t all bad! If you heed his advice that Crimson Peak is no horror film, there may be some bits worth salvaging yet. But for the average non-GDT buff? Let’s just say Hitchcock’s Rebecca this ain’t.
Photos by Universal Pictures