Skeletal Plot Struggles to Support Rich Visuals of ‘Crimson Peak’

As we filed into the dark theater and slid into our seats, there was an excited buzz humming throughout the venue – the kind you usually feel before concerts or live performances rather than just movies.  Everyone was so pumped about seeing Guillermo del Toro’s new film; there was electricity in the air.  If you listened in on any random, surrounding conversation, you’d heard the familiar, beloved titles on the audience members’ lips:  

“Oh, I just love Pan’s Labyrinth,” said one.  More on that later.

“Ever see Cronos?  Best vampire movie ever,” someone else mentioned.

“I didn’t love Pacific Rim, but it was still a fun time,” voiced another.  

And then it happened – someone said it – the Kaiju in the room no one wanted to even think about, but naturally, someone would inevitably address:  

“Guillermo del Toro has yet to make a really amazing movie in English,” said some killjoy who probably enjoys bad dining experiences so he can gleefully type negative reviews on Yelp about them.  

But it was too late…it had already been spoken aloud and unleashed into the universe.  Suddenly, the wonderful scent of the buttered popcorn reeked like moldy cheddar smeared over the once fluffy, golden kernels, which now had the stale flavor of newspaper print.  The anticipation of something wonderful seemed like it had disappeared and the electricity had been sucked out by a foreboding, hype-consuming vacuum.          

Despite the riptide of apprehension, I was still optimistic – for two reasons.  First and foremost, the realm of the supernatural is del Toro’s naturalistic playground, where he thrives as a storyteller.  And secondly, I actually don’t agree.  I think Blade 2 is damn near a masterpiece (yes, I realize David S. Goyer wrote the script and it was pre-Pan’s Labyrinth), certainly one of the more underrated comic book films of the ‘00s and beyond.  All those thoughts faded as the lights began to dim.  The once-boisterous swell that seemed to calm after mention of his English-language film shortcomings receded into the darkness.  What now mattered most was that Guillermo del Toro’s newest project, Crimson Peak, was being beamed out from the projector onto the screen for our eager senses to absorb.  Perhaps it would finally mark the breakthrough crossover masterpiece many of his fans had been waiting for.    

crimson peak - stairs

Image: Universal Pictures

From the time she was a child, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska, who has never given a bad performance in anything I’ve seen her in) has had the rare gift of being able to communicate with the dead, stemming from an episode with her recently deceased mother.  Fourteen years after that experience, Edith is now an aspiring horror novelist.  In contrast to the other young privileged ladies she knows, Edith is an outcast who seems destined to spend her life as a spinster – until she meets dashing Englishman, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston, of course).  Thomas hopes to complete a business deal with her shrewd father, Carter (played by Jim Beaver).  Although their transaction goes south, Thomas makes his affections for Edith clear despite opposition from her father and doubt from his mysterious sister, Lucille (the inimitable Jessica Chastain).  

In the aftermath of a tragic occurrence, Edith marries Thomas and they go back to his Cumberland estate. The mansion makes the dilapidated home in Fight Club look like the Waldorf Astoria.  Red liquid clay deposits drip from the walls and seep through from beneath the ground, leaving blood-like puddles everywhere and there are gaping holes in the roof.  But the most unpleasant element of the mansion is the short-tempered Lucille who insists on keeping many areas of the home off-limits to Edith.  As if things couldn’t get any worse, Edith’s gift recurs and her terrifying visions may be trying to warn her that not all is what it seems with Thomas and Lucille.  

This film gets off to such a wonderful start.  It takes its time telling the story.  There’s such an intimacy with the first act, it’s like turning the frayed pages of an old book under candlelight and hanging on every word.  It’s so gorgeous to look at, too.  Your eyes almost get the same sensation as your hands do when handling expensive porcelain – if you look too hard, your gaze might rip right through the screen…it’s just so absolutely stunning.  Del Toro had stated before at this past summer’s Comic-Con that Crimson Peak was his most beautiful film, but I just dismissed that as the kind of blurb a filmmaker promoting his movie (still months away at the time) would say just to get the hype machine rolling, regardless if it was true or not.  However, he wasn’t speaking for the sake of marketing hyperbole – it truly is.   

However, after such a great beginning in which the film was allowed to “breathe” and gradually develop, around mid-second act it seems as if they had an emergency production meeting and collectively decided to speed things up from that point onward.  Consequently, it gives Crimson Peak a very top-heavy, uneven feeling that deprives the second half of the film the intimacy which made the first work so well.  

There was a lot of anticipation surrounding this project because it was del Toro doing what appeared to be a terrifying, gothic horror movie…but you’ll get more chills swooning over Tom Hiddleston than you will from the film itself.  Out of a runtime of 119 minutes, there’s only one well earned “jump scare” and even that one felt compulsory.  Aside from a few French Extreme-inspired deaths, this movie’s very anemic with frights and that’s largely because of the ghost effects – they look terrible and more cartoony than fearful…like something out of a Tim Burton movie.  Remember Andrés Muschietti’s 2013 film, Mama?  Guillermo del Toro actually produced that one as well.  Mama had such great potential to be a classic horror film, but its Achilles heel was an absolutely ridiculous looking, poorly-crafted CGI monster and Crimson Peak’s creature design work is on par with that.  I’ll never understand why a brilliant filmmaker like del Toro would have resistance to utilizing practical effects, which are not only usually scarier, but would also fit perfectly into a period piece horror film such as this.

crimson peak - white

Image: Universal Pictures

Crimson Peak’s lack of scares ties directly into an even more significant issue – the film’s plot is way too thin, especially for such a rich tapestry of sublime imagery we’re getting throughout.  The narrative, as a whole, offers very few punches or notable twists.  There is one biggie – and it’s actually something devastating and disturbing, but it still lands with a relative whimper and we’re not as floored by it as we should be.  With such tremendous attention to detail poured into the top-notch costumes, shot selection and settings, it’s very disappointing that the screenplay didn’t seem to receive that same level of effort.      

Overall, Crimson Peak is far from a masterpiece, but despite its wispy storyline, it still manages to entertain and offers some of the most magnificent film aesthetics we have seen in some time helmed by one of the purest cinematic visionaries working in the field today.  For those del Toro fans that lament this still won’t bring them their anticipated English-language masterpiece, I’d say that maybe it’s time to move past Pan’s Labyrinth and stop holding him to that impossible gold standard of a 9-year old film.  Masterpieces aren’t crafted everyday, which is exactly why they are revered and appreciated in the way that they are.  However, that’s not to say other successive works cannot be enjoyable or still better than most of the usual multiplex fare you’ll find.  One of Crimson Peak’s most prevalent themes is about the hazard of holding onto something for too long and to that faction of del Toro fans I’d say it’s about that time to let it go.